Pictorial Lettersheet Collection
Language of Materials
Printed stationery with scenes of New York City and other cities.
Pictorial lettersheets were an early precursor to picture postcards. Lettersheets were created to comply with, yet cleverly circumvent, postal regulations. Before 1855, postage was calculated based on the number of sheets enclosed in each envelope. Lettersheets became very popular because of their folio format, an 8.5 x 21 inch piece of paper folded in half, which provided four pages on which to write but were considered as one sheet by the Post Office. Some publishers, particularly Charles Magnus of New York and many California stationers, included printed illustrations on the lettersheets to increase their commercial appeal. These illustrations, often bird's eye views or detailed street scenes of cities, usually appeared in a rectangular space at the top of the first page of the folio.
In the United States, this form of stationery was popular mainly in New York and San Francisco, perhaps because of those cities' coastal locations and importance as ports of entry. Magnus, a German immigrant, also produced scenes of midwestern cities, like Cincinnati, Ohio and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, that had large German immigrant populations.
Most lettersheets were printed lithographically in black and white, but occasionally colors were added by hand, or colored stock was used. Charles Magnus often used a photograph as a base to achieve an accurate perspective and architectural detail, adding hand-drawn figures and vehicles.
- Series I. Loose lettersheets
- Series II. Albums of lettersheets
Scope and Content Note
The Pictorial Lettersheet Collection spans the period from the 1840s to the 1890s and primarily contains writing paper featuring urban views. The collection is divided into two series: Loose Lettersheets and Albums of Lettersheets. Most were printed in New York by Charles Magnus.
The majority of these lettersheets are unused, but a few contain correspondence. Most sheets measure 8.5 x 10.5 inches, the standard size of the folded page. A few are larger, and several are 5.5 x 8.5 inch or "note size" sheets. Some of the views are cut off from their sheets and the sheets discarded. Other views are annotated with specific details, such as street names, dates, or building numbers, by New-York Historical Society staff. Some of the Magnus' views have German captions, as well as both German and English text on the same sheet.
The lettersheets predominantly show birds-eye views and street scenes of New York City. Also pictured are views of the Hudson River and upstate New York towns: Albany, Buffalo, Niagara Falls, Rochester, Saratoga, Syracuse, Troy, and West Point. New Jersey area towns include Egg Harbor City, New Brunswick, and Newark. Other American cities pictured are Detroit, Michigan; Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Martin's Ferry, Ohio; Norfolk, Virginia; San Jose and San Francisco, California; Annapolis and Baltimore, Maryland; Providence, Rhode Island; Bangor, Maine; Philadelphia and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Milwaukee and Sheboygan, Wisconsin; and Washington, D.C.
Subject-oriented lettersheets often show New York City transportation scenes -- bridges, ships, and elevated railroads are well represented. A group of firemen is pictured, as are important events of the period, such as Lincoln's funeral procession through New York (1865), and the erection of the Crystal Palace. Other New York landmarks shown include the Brooklyn Bridge, the Custom House, City Hall, and the Statue of Liberty. Some of these prints are the only surviving contemporary views of a locality or building, as the urban streetscape changed so rapidly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
This collection was removed from the Graphic Arts File (PR 022) in 2002.
Open to qualified researchers.
Photocopying undertaken by staff only. Limited to 30 photocopies per day per person. Suitability of the original for photocopying is at the discretion of the staff. Neither blueprints nor tracings can be copied under any circumstances. Duplication of large-format items will be done by the house photographer. See Print Room guidelines for details.
Permission to reproduce any Print Room holdings through publication must be obtained from
Rights and Reproductions
The New-York Historical Society
Two West 77th Street
New York, NY 10024
Phone: (212) 873-3400 ext. 282
Fax: (212) 579-8794
The copyright law of the United States governs the making of photocopies and protects unpublished materials as well as published materials. Unpublished materials created before January 1, 1978 cannot be quoted in publication without permission of the copyright holder.
This collection should be cited as Pictorial Lettersheet Collection, PR 144, Department of Prints, Photographs, and Architectural Collections, The New-York Historical Society.
The collection is composed of various gifts and purchases. One album was a gift of Bella C. Landauer.