Visual Culture

The Library Company’s strong collections of over 100,000 visual culture holdings rooted in our Graphic Arts Collection include but are not limited to prints, photographs, ephemera, heavily-illustrated and plate books, printing manuals and treatises, specimen books, and materials that refer to and or represent optics or vision These visual materials, primarily dating between the 18th and early 20th centuries, range from stunning hand-colored plates in books to deceptively simple pieces of ephemera, from original art to early paper photographs. Informing and complementing the collections that comprise the Library’s subject and media strengths, relevant holdings include visual materials that document the technology of the production of graphics; graphic ephemera that complement the more national collecting strengths of the library, including African American History, popular medicine, and economy and society; separately-issued graphics pertaining to late 19th- and early 20th-century popular culture; and printed material that is heavily illustrated, such as with innovative illustration processes. Works that can help us understand the visual significance of non-illustrative material such as typography and book decoration also comprise these holdings.

These materials also reflect and represent the visual cultures and historical, social, and political biases of their eras of production, distribution, and reception that intersect with core areas of study at the Library and which comprise as noted African American history; popular medicine, and economy and society as well as the Civil War; ephemera; natural history and science; Philadelphiana; popular culture; printing, photography, and book arts; religion; and women’s history.

These holdings also support and inform the Library’s Visual Culture Program. Established with the mission to foster visual literacy and the use of historical images as primary sources for studying the past, the Program facilitates research, collection, and interpretation of historic visual material.

Cataloged as individual items and collections, many can be found in our online general catalog through the advanced search feature and item type “visual material.” The item type “map” will also retrieve visual culture materials, as well as search strings with keyword search terms listed below in a string(s) with item type “books” and /or “visual material.” The Library’s Digital Collections Catalog also predominantly includes digital collections of materials from our visual culture holdings.

Revised January 2024


* Use with advanced search field “notes/comments” for more precise results

  • African American History
  • Albumen prints
  • Cased photos
  • Color plate books
  • Commercial streets
  • Civil War
  • “EAMSS” [for Early American Medicine, Science and Society]
  • Engravings Ephemera (see also subject guide Printed and Graphic Ephemera)
  • Gelatin silver prints
  • Ill. [for illustrated]*
  • Lithographs
  • Medicine, Popular
  • Natural history
  • Optics
  • Philadelphia artists
  • Philadelphia on Stone
  • Political cartoons
  • Photography
  • Printing
  • Religion
  • Relief prints
  • “RVCDC” [for Race and Visual Culture Digital Collection]
  • Salted paper prints
  • Stereographs
  • Tintypes
  • Typography
  • Type specimens
  • Wood engravings
  • Women