Analyzing Patriotic Iconography: Illustrated Civil War Envelopes
Analyzing Patriotic Iconography: Illustrated Civil War Envelopes

Students analyze Civil War-era envelopes as representations of popular imagery in the mid-19th century.

Students analyze Civil War-era envelopes as representations of popular imagery in the mid-19th century.


This exercise introduces students to illustrated Civil War-era envelopes in order to study the growth of popular imagery in 19th-century American culture. I drew on Steven R. Boyd’s book, Patriotic Envelopes of the Civil War: The Iconography of Union and Confederate Covers (LSU Press, 2010). This accessible book shows how envelope-sized illustrations succinctly and forcefully expressed political themes and attitudes during the Civil War.

In the archives, my students were interested in the envelopes themselves and in the way that they were compiled in scrapbooks by collectors. They were engaged in the challenge of interpreting individual illustrations and they had fun looking at some of the more unusual designs. They also demonstrated strong analytical skills, whether observing representations of race and gender or changing depictions of Abraham Lincoln.

Looking at a large collection of these envelopes in the archives enables students to recognize common subjects (such as eagles, snakes, soldiers, and flags) which frequently appear in other contemporary media. Seeing so many envelopes at once also means students will inevitably encounter images unlike those selected for reproduction for Boyd’s book and unlike other media of the era.


In American Art, students should be able to:

  • Identify and differentiate among the print making processes (wood engraving, lithography, and chromolithography) used on the envelopes
  • Compare and contrast various representations of abstract concepts, allegorical figures, historical actors and events, and everyday people on the envelopes
  • Compare and contrast representations on the envelopes with representations in 19th-century American paintings, sculptures, photographs, and lithographs previously studied in class

In addition, Visual Culture of the Civil War students should also be able to:

  • Articulate in a presentation how these images were used to promote patriotism in the North or South
  • Articulate in a presentation how these images perpetuated and challenged attitudes toward race and gender


Before visiting the archives, I use online collections (such as this one from The Library Company of Philadelphia) to show students examples of Civil War envelopes in class. I teach them how to identify the printmaking processes of wood engraving and lithography.

I also lead a comparison activity in which I project two images side-by-side. Students take a couple of minutes to jot down observations about how the images are similar and how they are different, and then I lead a class discussion. Here are two example prompts.

To provide students with a framework to analyze the envelopes, I assign excerpts from Boyd’s book. Each student is required to post a question about the reading on our class blog.


Number of Visits: 1
Duration of Visit: 1 hour 15 minutes


15 minutes

45 minutes
Small group work

15 minutes
Wrap up

Students work in three groups of no more than four to five students. Each group is assigned a scrapbook of illustrated Civil War-era patriotic envelopes. Students spend 45 minutes looking through a single scrapbook and completing the handout.

The handout prompts students to find examples of particular types of imagery, and models analysis of the envelopes. See handouts for American Art and for Visual Culture of the Civil War.

Wrap up

By the end of class, students should have selected an envelope that they will analyze in a follow-up assignment. In the last 15 minutes of class, students share which envelope they chose and why.

End Products

In American Art:

In a two paragraph essay, students compare and contrast an envelope chosen in the archives and a work of art from their “study list” consisting of images reproduced in the class textbook, Frances Pohl’s Framing America, 3rd ed. The essay counts toward the midterm exam.

In Visual Culture of the Civil War:

For homework, students post an interpretation of an envelope to the class blog. Students also give a 5 minute in-class presentation to fulfill the oral presentation requirement of my college’s honors seminar program. Students have one class period to prepare so that I can circulate, offer suggestions, and answer questions. I developed criteria to assess these presentations.

Archival Materials Used

Scrapbook of Civil War envelopes, 1861-1865; William Irwin Martin Civil War envelopes, 1974.259, box 1; Brooklyn Historical Society. click for images

Civil War era scrapbook, volume 2, 1861-1866; C.B. Nichols scrapbooks, 1974.134, box 1, folder 1; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Civil War era scrapbook, volume 3, circa 1861-1865; C.B. Nichols scrapbooks, 1974.134, box 1, folder 2; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Artworks Used

In American Art:

See the study list given to students in preparation for the midterm exam.

In the comparison activities described in Context above:

Crawford, Thomas. Freedom, bronze, 1863; Dome of the United States Capitol.

Galle, Theodor. Vespucci Discovering America, engraving, circa 1580; Brooklyn Museum. After Discovery of America, a drawing by Jan van der Straet, circa 1587-1589; The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Powers, Hiram. The Greek Slave, marble, 1869; Brooklyn Museum.

Further Reading

Boyd, Steven R. Patriotic Envelopes of the Civil War: The Iconography of Union and Confederate Covers. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2010.

Dabakis, Melissa. “Sculpting Lincoln: Vinnie Ream, Sarah Fisher Ames, and the Equal Rights Movement.” American Art vol. 22, no. 1 (Spring 2008): 78-101.

Harvey, Eleanor Jones. “Landscapes and the Metaphorical War.” In The Civil War and American Art, 17-72. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012.

“The Meteor of War,” a section in this essay, is a particularly nice pairing with “Star of the North, or the Comet of 1861,” an envelope in BHS’s collection showing Lincoln’s head as a comet.

John A. McAllister collection of Civil War envelopes, 1861-1862; The Library Company of Philadelphia. Accessed January 2014.

McInnis, Maurie D. Slaves Waiting for Sale: Abolitionist Art and the American Slave Trade. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Neely, Mark and Harold Holzer. The Union Image: Popular Prints of the Civil War North. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Slautterback, Catherine. Chromo-Mania! The Art of Lithography in Boston, 1840-1910. Boston: The Boston Athenaeum, 2012.

Wood, Peter H. Near Andersonville: Winslow Homer’s Civil War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.

To cite this page:
Jennifer Wingate, “Analyzing Patriotic Iconography: Illustrated Civil War Envelopes,”, accessed [insert date here],


Jennifer Wingate
Assistant Professor of Fine Arts
St. Francis College
view author bio >

Used In

HON 5101-2: Visual Culture of Civil War
FA 1420: American Art

A year-long freshman honors seminar on the visual culture of the Civil War. Also adapted for use in a survey class for non-majors.

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