Isaiah Thomas Broadside Ballads Project

Verses in Vogue with the Vulgar



Judging from his dated output of 1810 and 1811, Nathaniel Coverly Jr.’s shop had acquired crisp type and good illustrative material when he opened his shop on Milk Street. His new enterprise may have been underwritten by a family member. The bankruptcy had taken all of his type stock and his press in 1804, yet within months of opening his shop in July 1810, he produced Entertaining Stories for Little Children with several excellent cuts: a detailed cut called “Military Emblem,” several cuts of birds—some finely detailed, others fairly crude—and three decorative strips).[1] By October 1810 he was able to print Tom Starboard with two detailed birds, a large floral garland, and a well-executed eagle, the last cut probably purchased from the Philadelphia foundry of Binny & Ronaldson (Specimen of Metal Ornaments).

Coverly and White used their images in pamphlets and small books, as well as on broadsides. Many times the illustration is related directly to the subject of the text, like the crocodile on Meg of Wapping, or the warlike image of drums, flags, and bayonets that appears on The American Patriot’s War Song and other patriotic texts. Others, like this stylized tree that has nothing to do with the Sedition Act broadside, were stock cuts used simply to fill a space and enliven the sheet. An excellent cut of a lion (#4) appears on The Silver Key, printed on September 2, 1811. It seems to have no relevance to the text at all.

Coverly used his fine images sparingly. The designs he appears to have preferred were simple ones of birds, ships, and small squares with scenes in them. These populate his children’s books and most of his broadsides—to list all the concordances would take pages. He liked to use his woodcut of guns and drums and of ornamental flowers as colophons in his pamphlets and when he could not think of what to use, he reached for his favorite ship ornaments, such as the one used for Lord Nelson’s Battle of the Niles or for The Siege of Tripoli

Even when the cuts had nothing to do with the topic, they added a decorative element. Pictures drew the eye to the page and helped sales. A comparison of the layout of the text and images on these sheets with those of other eras indicates that most of them are in the fairly sparse eighteenth-century mode. The crowded pages characteristic of nineteenth-century printing were still to come, although Coverly hints at a changing technique in Most Brilliant Naval Victory on Lake Erie on which he used every cut of a small ship in his shop plus one of his large ship cuts and the national emblem eagle. Generally, after 1813 his illustrations became larger and either more scenic or more personal, sometimes depicting the hero or heroine of the pieces in a full portrait.


There were two types of engraving techniques available to artists making illustrations for the printing trade in the early nineteenth century. The least expensive was a relief engraving, in which the image was cut or scratched into the top surface. To make a picture, the carver cut away all material that should not print, leaving lines and broader surfaces to be inked and make an imprint, rather like a rubber stamp today. All of the illustrations on the Boston broadsides in the Thomas collection are made from relief engravings carved into either metal or wood.[2] These would be placed into the form along with the type that made up the title and the text and any decorative lines. This entire form would be printed in one pass through the press.

The Thomas collection also includes a group of English broadsides by John Evans that are illustrated with intaglio engravings, in which the image lies inside the gouges rather than on the top surface. For these sheets, the artist dug out all the lines and areas that should print with a sharp tool. These lines were filled with ink, the top surfaces wiped clean, and dampened paper pressed into the grooves to pick up the image. This type of engraving required a different press and a different paper handling technique (“Printed Image in the West”).

Relief illustrations for publishers such as Coverly were probably created both in wood or in type metal, depending on the engraver chosen to do the work. Type metal was an alloy of lead, antimony, and tin. In some large images, such as the woodcut for A Particular Account of the Late Distressing Fire at Portsmouth, the nail or tack heads that held the metal sheet to a wood base are visible. In most printed examples, it is impossible to identify the medium, but there are several exceptions in the Thomas collection (Hamilton 1:xxiii). Four cuts have evidence of being warped and cracked, indicating that they were made on wood stock. The most dramatic is the eight-inch-wide image of two ships that appeared on Hull’s Victory. The stock had split completely into two pieces, but Coverly repaired it and continued to use it, never quite masking the break, as seen on Bainbridge’s Victory.  The second example is a smaller ship image, used to decorate Yankee Chronology. Here the raised portion was in the middle so that, when the cut was pressed down, cracks radiated out from that point to the edges. Because Coverly had used the cut several times before it cracked, a good image is still in existence and its deterioration can be traced. A third cut (#2), on The British Lamentation, a large one of nearly six inches across, also cracked in the middle, radiating lines to the lower edge. A fourth cut, on The Reformed Rake, has either a scratch or a crack on the lower left side of the standing figure. If this is a crack, it would suggest that this image and the three others like it (as seen on Thou Shalt Do No Murder, Boston December 18, 1813, and A Copy of a Letter from Samuel Tully) were also cut into a wood base.

Illustrations and Type Ornaments

In considering printers’ illustrations of any sort, there are two aspects to be noted: first, the idea or design by an artist, and second, the engraver’s execution of that design in a medium suitable for printing. The artists who created most of the design ideas in this collection are unknown. Thus far, we have located the original art for only one, a dog, which was derived from Thomas Bewick’s “Spanish Pointer.”

In many cases, the images are copied from previous imprints, probably many versions removed from the original art. Engravers were highly skilled at copying designs and it is important to check the original print against any concordance to determine whether it is, indeed, the same, or a very good copy. Sometimes a copy is obvious: when the engraver took the image directly from the picture and produced a reverse image. But designs executed to look identical can be very close and easily fool the eye.

The images in children’s books are particularly derivative of other designs. Many of these little books had a traditional group of illustrations that varied little from publisher to publisher. The illustrations in Jacky Dandy’s Delight reveal how clearly the chain can be traced. John Marshall published an edition of this book in London around 1783 (Welch 222). In 1788, Isaiah Thomas published a copy. Within a decade the text and illustrations in this booklet were copied by publishers in Hudson, New York, and Newfield and Hartford, Connecticut, as well as by Samuel Hall in Boston and Nathaniel Coverly in Salem. Each had local engravers copy the same picture onto new blocks for printing, and each time, the designs degraded somewhat in the process.

When Isaiah Thomas took an inventory of his shop in 1796 he had about 1,500 cuts “for children’s and other books.” In the list were cuts for Mother’s Gift (valued at $16.00), Mother Goose’s Melody ($13.00), Brother’s Gift ($1.25), Jacky Dandy’s Delight ($1.00), and Cock Robin ($2.00). For the Cock Robin publication, each of the designs was copied directly from a version published in London around 1787 by John Evans (Welch 67).[3] It is likely that each of the other sets of pictures were also copied from English originals. While Thomas could afford good engravers and his cuts are generally of fairly good quality, other Boston-area printers were not so fortunate. One imagines a printer’s dismay after paying for an illustration to take delivery of a block with an inept rendering on it. Such must have been Coverly’s reaction, when in 1818, he printed a proof of the frontispiece of his new songster, The Neptune; or, A Collection of the Most Entertaining Comic and Sea Songs. Coverly had evidently given The Neptune, first published in 1806 in Boston by Thomas Fleet, to an engraver with instructions to copy the frontispiece. In the hands of the less-skilled artisan , the well-formed god of the sea that Coverly’s engraver was copying had become a flaccid body draped on a rock.The rest of the image was equally without substance.

Printers could purchase new ornaments from companies specializing in metal molding. These companies advertised their products on large broadsides or multipage catalogs. Isaiah Thomas preserved a collection of such catalogs that is now at AAS, including one listing his own type and ornament holdings.[4] It is likely that he used the others to order type and cuts directly from the manufacturers. These catalogs, although intended to show items for purchase, might also give ideas to local artists: type in various sizes and styles, relief cuts from large illustrations to small “newspaper” designs, cast metal motifs to use as dividers or colophons, and an array of decorative border elements called “flowers.” Several cuts on the broadsides are local copies of British or American offerings; see, for example, the lion on Mary, Marry John, and the rose on Rogers and Victory.

While Coverly still used many small scenes designed within squares of the type that filled late eighteenth-century books and pamphlets, illustration styles were changing. These illustrations were being replaced by scenes with more air around them, in his work and that of his contemporaries. Moving away from the boxed-in images of the past, dramatic human figures, patriotic emblems, ships, and skylines were cut without borders.

Who Carved the Illustrations?

The decorative type elements were probably all purchased, either directly from a type founder or from the holdings of a printer who had died or otherwise gone out of business. The wide variety of artistic expression in the pictorial illustrations suggest that a number of local carvers produced many of the cuts.

Four designs in the Thomas collection were created by known engravers. Two, the Prodigal Daughter cuts, as seen on The Embargo and Murder: Death of Miss Mack Coy, were cut in the 1760s by a worker in Thomas Fleet’s shop. He carved the initials PF into the woodcut on Murder: Death of Miss Mack Coy, standing for Pompey Fleet, probably an African American who had taken his employer’s last name (Reilly 332). The initials had been removed by the time Coverly acquired the cut. The other two designs are by Nathaniel Dearborn (1786-1852) and can be seen on The Last Words of S. Tully and Hull’s Surrender. In 1812 Dearborn had just begun his career and at the time was associated with the skilled engraver, Abel Bowen (1790-1850). Dearborn and Bowen later became well known for their work engraving in wood, following the lead of the English artist, Thomas Bewick (1753-1828).[5]

There are also several images that bear strong resemblance to pieces by Alexander Anderson (1775-1870), particularly those on Lines Composed on the Death of General Washington, The Soldier’s Return, and An Elegy on the Death of the Reverend Joseph S. Buckminster. As mentioned above, the bold figures of Thou Shalt Do No Murder, Boston December 18, 1813, and A Copy of a Letter from Samuel Tully were possibly cut in wood, all with a very common, yet very different style, for example from the primitive execution of the woodcut of Pompey and His Associates. Another artistic hand is visible in a distinctive group of images on broadsides probably printed by Joseph White, as seen on Tom Tough, Battle of the Kegs, Female Drummer, A Lover’s Lamentation, Lord Cornwallis’s Surrender, and Old Maid’s Last Prayer. While none of these has White’s imprint, other clues such as typesetting techniques, the font used, and specific ornaments connect them to his press.

The large scene of the Portsmouth fire was made by an artist who would produce more cuts for Coverly’s later broadsides. His dramatic style is quite distinctive. A contrast to this illustration is the similarly sized cut of the comet. The design is striking and certainly enhances the sheet, but the execution is crude.

Coverly must have employed a local engraver of considerable skill to create the dramatic ship cuts for his broadsides. He seems to have been almost alone in the marketplace for sea songs and pictures of ships, and most of his ship cuts are not seen elsewhere.[6] Binny and Ronaldson offered two fine ship cuts in their catalog, but while he may have been influenced by Binny’s images, Coverly’s carver had a good design sense and his carving seems stronger (Specimen of Metal Ornaments 10, 20).

The Thomas collection of broadsides depicts ships that extend from a massive three-masted frigate to a graceful one-masted ketch. The design may have been inspired by Caslon’s “No. 18” (1796 catalog) but rendered considerably smaller.[7] Coverly used this cut often. Another favorite that appears on many broadsides with and without his imprint was a two-masted brigantine that may have originated in Caslon’s “No. 16.” Many smaller cuts of ships were also in his type case.

Joseph White also used cuts of ships, but of a much lower quality. White’s case was hampered by his dire poverty and desperate family situation (Keller 241). Although not able to purchase quality cuts, he knew that he needed something to illustrate his sheets for sales appeal. It is possible that family members—Nathaniel Coverly Sr., in particular—were able to assist both White and Coverly Jr. with their illustrative stock. 

When Coverly Sr. began his business in the 1770s, he recognized the need for a library of flowers, and he used them well. An example is the layout work in his Plymouth Journal of 1785-86—even advertisements are surrounded with attractive border elements. While we do not know where he learned the skill of printing, he had an eye for design. Coverly Sr. was an articulate man, the son of a ship captain whose business had taken him to ports all around the Atlantic rim. As he grew up, he must have been acquainted with well-made books and beautiful curiosities from many cities.

Coverly Sr. began in the printing business in Zechariah Fowle’s shop, where Isaiah Thomas was an apprentice. Evidence survives that both Thomas and Coverly tried their hands at creating relief cuts. Several cuts signed “IT” (Reilly 332-36) and one signed “NC” (“Dr. Watts,” Reilly #1190) have been identified. Fowle and Coverly published several books around this time—the late 1760s and early 1770s—in which there are a number of large unsigned cuts that hint of the same hand that produced “Dr. Watts.” In 1775, when Coverly moved from Boston to Chelmsford, he may have had no alternative to engraving his own cuts for the topical broadsides that he published there. (See Reilly, #1134, #1173, and #1174, and A Poem on the Bloody Engagement That Was Fought on Bunker’s Hill.) He still owned his engraving of “Dr. Watts” and another that may have been his work, the portrait of Oliver Cromwell (Reilly #1606), that he used in the 1785 edition of Divine Songs. From these and perhaps the earlier pieces, considerable information can be obtained about the older Coverly’s use of the graver.

A small, delicately executed printer’s mark colophon on the title page of Baptism Discovered Plainly and Faithfully (printed by Coverly in Salem in 1801) with the initials “NC” suggests that he was not idle with his graver.[8] It is possible that a few years later, after the bankruptcy sale had eliminated all of their stock in relief designs, Coverly Sr. helped his son and perhaps Joseph White as well by making relief cuts as they were needed.[9]

In the next phase of this e-resource, we hope to include Keller’s inventory of relief cuts and decorative type ornaments (flowers). The latter section is further divided between those found in Nathaniel Coverly Jr.’s shop and those of Joseph White. For the time being, this resource can be found in the AAS reading room.

[1] This little book attracted attention in the trade. In 1811, Salmon Wilder produced a direct copy in Leominster, Massachusetts, a copy that included several of the same designs rendered as mirror images. He did not have the military cut for the frontispiece, but echoed the patriotic theme with an eagle motive (Entertaining Stories).

[2] The casual use of the terms “woodcut” and “engraving” for all printed illustrations created by cutting a design into a matrix has caused considerable confusion. Until the 1790s, most American illustrations now called “woodcuts” were actually made in metal (Hamilton 1:xxiii, note 1).

[3] Now at Harvard University.

[4] Thomas’s collection included catalogs from Thomas Cottrell (London: 1774 and 1785), John Baine (Edinburgh: 1787), Elihu White (New York: 1817), and Binny & Ronaldson (Philadelphia: 1812), as well as his own from 1787 that featured type founded by William Caslon of London.

[5] In 1834, Bowen and his colleagues established the Boston Bewick Society “in honor of the late Thomas Bewick, the restorer of the art of engraving on wood” (Whitmore 12). Dearborn was not a member of the society, however. Positioning himself more broadly, he offered engraving on “wood, brass and other metals” ([Boston] Commercial Advertiser, February 1, 1819).

[6] The only other cuts of similar size that I have located are a large ship cut in The History of Little King Pippin (Boston: Samuel Hall, 1801?), MH; Tragical History of the Children in the Wood (Boston: S. Hall, [1798]); and a pale imitation of Coverly’s Constitution and Guerriere on The Constitution & Guerriere ([New York]: John Low, [1812]), with two sketchy ships at the head, New York Historical Society.

[7] Coverly may have had this catalog in his shop. Several other cuts seem inspired by designs in this book, such as those seen on The Valley Below and The Mournful Tragedy of Rosanna.

[8] This type of colophon had become fashionable among printers in the late 1790s and early years of the new century. A number of Boston printers began to use a “printers mark” on their title pages at this time. See, for example Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society (1795) and Constitution of the New Century Fire Society (1801).

[9] See the ship on the right in The Launch; or, Huzza for the New Seventy-Four (Printed by Nathaniel Coverly, Jun, Milk-Street, Boston [MSaE]). Coverly Jr. paired this cut with the much superior frigate. The linear technique compares favorably with cuts found on boradsides such as The Frog and Mouse, Pompey and His Associates, and Theatre on Fire in the Thomas collection. If Coverly Sr. was working on cuts, he may have been responsible for some of the more primitive ship cuts as well.