by John Adler, Publisher

n 1817, 22-year old James Harper and his 20-year old brother, John, set up a small printing firm in New York City called J. & J. Harper. Joined later by their younger brothers, Joseph Wesley and Fletcher, the firm became the largest book publisher in the United States by 1825. The name was changed to Harper & Brothers in 1833, and survives today as Harper-Collins.

Under Fletchers guidance, the firm started Harpers Monthly in June 1850. The first managing editor was Henry Raymond, who soon went on to help found and then publish the New York Times. Harpers Monthly became and still is an outstanding literary magazine.

The ancestral seed for Harpers Weekly germinated in 1842 in London when the management of the London Illustrated News figured out how to illustrate the latest news stories on a timely basis. Traditionally, woodblock printing of illustrations was a labor-intensive process requiring three steps. First, a boxwood block, which was the exact thickness of the type, was polished smooth. Next, an artist used a pencil to draw his picture on the block in reverse, creating a mirror image. Then an engraver, using a graver and chisels, cut away all the wood not covered by pencil lines.

The new technique, which enabled weekly news periodicals to meet publication deadlines, involved dividing the drawing into many pieces after it was completed. The pieces were assigned to separate engravers for each block; when completed the blocks were reassembled and bolted together. Double-page prints required up to 40 blocks. (The thin white lines between blocks can be seen in some of the Harpers Weekly illustrations.)

ne of the London Illustrated News engravers in 1842 was 22-year old Frank Leslie (who was born Henry Carter.) Leslie immigrated to the United States in 1848, became associated with P. T. Barnum and then worked on some unsuccessful illustrated periodicals as an engraver. On December 15, 1855, he published the first issue of Frank Leslies Illustrated Newspaper in New York.

otivated by the success of Leslies, Fletcher Harper published the first issue of Harpers Weekly one year later on January 3, 1857. Harpers was aimed at the middle and upper socio-economic classes, and tried not to print anything that it considered unfit for the entire family to read. In addition to the importance of illustrations and cartoons by artists like Winslow Homer and Thomas Nast, the papers editorials played a significant role in shaping and reflecting public opinion from the start of the Civil War to the end of the century. George William Curtis, who was editor from 1863 until his death in 1892, was its most important editorial writer.

From its founding in 1857 until the Civil War broke out in April 1861, the publication took a moderate editorial stance on slavery and related volatile issues of the day. It had substantial readership in the South, and wanted to preserve the Union at all costs. Some critics called it "Harpers Weakly."

Harpers Weekly would have preferred William Seward or possibly even Stephen Douglas for president in 1860, and was lukewarm towards Lincoln early in his administration. When war came, however, its editorials embraced Lincoln, preservation of the Union, and the Republican Party. Military coverage became paramount in every issue, as its news and illustrations kept soldiers at the various fronts and their loved ones at home up to date on the details of the fighting.

The following quotation from the April 1865 issue of the North American Review shows how a leading peer publication viewed the wartime contributions of Harpers Weekly.

"Its vast circulation, deservedly secured and maintained by the excellence and variety of its illustrations of the scenes and events of the war, as well as by the spirit and tone of its editorials, has carried it far and wide. It has been read in city parlors, in the log hut of the pioneer, by every camp-fire of our armies, in the wards of our hospitals, in the trenches before Petersburg, and in the ruins of Charleston; and wherever it has gone, it has kindled a warmer glow of patriotism, it has nerved the hearts and strengthened the arms of the people, and it has done its full part in the furtherance of the great cause of the Union, Freedom, and the Law."

After the war, Harper’s Weekly continued to be a major factor in Ulysses Grant’s presidential victories in 1868 and 1872, the overthrow of New York City political boss William Tweed in 1871 and the first election of Grover Cleveland in 1884. Its circulation exceeded 100,000, peaking at 300,000 on occasion, while readership probably exceeded half a million people.

Thomas Nast’s devastating cartoons drew national acclaim. As Boss Tweed said, "I don’t care so much what the papers write about me ― my constituents can’t read, but they can see them damned pictures.”

n 1967, I founded an advertising research business and was interested in old ads, especially those in Harpers Weekly. I was fortunate to acquire a complete set of Harpers Weekly (1857 through 1916) in 1972.

As a retirement project, I decided to have this uniquely important journal manually indexed. Harpers Weekly never had a useful index, so until now there has been no way for students and researchers to access the illustrations, cartoons, news, literature, editorials, and ads that these volumes contain without spending hours poring over microfilm or locked-up original copies in rare book rooms of libraries. Harpers Weekly is really the only consistent, comprehensive, week-to-week chronological record of what happened world-wide in the last half of the nineteenth century.

he reason for manually indexing Harper’s Weekly is to put nineteenth century language, occurrences and illustration content into twenty-first century terminology. For example: Should the 1858 New Jersey lady who owned a pistol be allowed to keep it? We index that item under "Women’s rights," although the term was not used in the 1858 article’s content.

Since 1995, up to 12 indexers with advanced degrees have read every word and studied every illustration and cartoon in Harpers Weekly, and have carefully constructed user-friendly indexes that will guide you in locating information quickly and concisely. The information is presented in an easy-to-navigate, alphabetical, multi-level structure familiar to scholars, reference librarians and students alike. Descriptive sub-entries will help you determine the relative value of the references by giving you specific information about an entry prior to display.

The 56 years of Harper’s Weekly provide a continuous record of what happened on a weekly basis from 1857 through 1912. The first segment includes the Civil War Era: 1857-1865. The next two cover Reconstruction: 1866-1871 and 1872-1877. The last six encompass the Gilded Age: 1878-1912.

n addition to the manually created Thesaurus-based index, HarpWeek has had the Full-text of Harper’s Weekly typed and entered into an additional database. Clients now have another way to explore the nineteenth century.

If "Haiti" doesn’t show up in Searchable Full-text, try it in the Thesaurus-based index; (it was spelled "Hayti" in the nineteenth century). If First Lieutenant J. E. Tuthill doesn’t appear in the Thesaurus-based index, try him in Searchable Full-text.

he database is now complete and available to clients.

cholarship is always an ongoing and interactive process. As you use the index and the images, you may find what you consider to be errors, or you may have suggestions. We welcome any corrections or commentary that you care to share with us. The HarpWeek index will be updated periodically to reflect new information. Please contact:

Thank you for getting acquainted with HarpWeek. Enjoy!

John Adler,



“Absinthe Drinking …”
July 14, 2024

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