Posted by: corri23j | December 6, 2015

19th-Century Dictionary Illustrations: Alphabetizing Art



We’ve got this massive, old dictionary at my house, and as a kid I remember paging through it. I was hunting not for words, but the pictures that appeared at random throughout the pages – illustrations of aardvarks, barges, calipers and whatever else. A few years ago, I got a book that kid me would have loved (and present me loves now) – basically an illustrated dictionary without those pesky definitions, just more than 1,500 engravings that originally graced the pages of 19th-century Webster’s dictionaries, collected and restored.

Though the very first English dictionary featuring images was produced in the 1720s, it took the technological advancements of the Victorian Era, combined with the proliferation of terms from the sciences, exploration and technology that needed depiction, to allow fully-illustrated dictionaries to come into their own. The first printed in the US debuted in 1859, with a greatly expanded version in 1864 and an International edition in 1890 – all Webster’s dictionaries.

teeth:telephone reciever

teeth/teak/telephone receiver

What I’m most fascinated by in the context of Visual Culture is what these engravings are supposed to accomplish, and what they actually end up being. Dictionaries certainly seem to carry a lot of the weight of Tagg’s “Burden of Representation” – they have to represent, with as little disfigurement as possible, literally every concept encapsulated by words. So these illustrations must serve the same purpose: capturing, identifying and reproducing the strange and unfamiliar. But isn’t the Benjaminian “aura” lost when these images are entirely de-contextualized, an island in a sea of words, connected not by theme but by alphabet? Maybe the aura is supposed to be lost – these images are for identification and classification, meant not to represent an individual, but all of its kind.

american race:american bison

taxonomy: representing race/representing species

The line between the ostensibly hard, scientific “truths” of the dictionary and the artistry of these engravings also seems rather blurred to me – John Andrew, the head engraver of the 1859 and 1864 editions, is praised in the dictionary preface as a “skillful artist,” but can “art” still faithfully serve as a “direct transcript of the real”?

sperm whales:spectacles

the sperm whale cornered by a harpoon-wielder – an image, or a story?

Some dictionaries evolved to using photographs, but Webster’s went the other way – further de-contextualizing the engravings, taking animals out of habitats, musicians away from instruments, and workers from machinery. Does that make the depictions more accurate for their clarity, or less so for their isolation?


do objects need context? the guitarist looks pleased, perhaps the guillotine-victim less so

Now, nobody who has heard of the internet would look in a dictionary as a substitute for Google Images. There are some modern online illustrated dictionaries (, and very interestingly they still use illustrations instead of photographs. Decontextualization prevails – the paradox that necessitates ideal depictions of reality, because reality is never ideal. It’s hard to take a beautiful picture of a cross-section of an earthworm or the entire solar system with all the planets like ducks in a row, I’ll give them that. Though I do miss flipping through a dictionary on a hunt for random pictures to appear amidst the rows of words.

Source for information and engravings:

Carrera, John M. Pictorial Webster’s: A Visual Dictionary of Curiosities. San Francisco: Chronicle, 2009. Print.

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