Atomic Awesome, Deconstructing Technology, Technostalgia

Regarding the Images in “Mesta Memories”

plantproductofme00mest_0027Good morning everyone.

When I started posting the Mesta Memories series, one of the first questions asked was how those striking pictures were made. Were they photographs or drawings? They resembled photographs at first glance, but the tonal scales were off in a way that was hard to put your finger on. They didn’t appear to be drawings either, especially when examined closely. My thought at the time was the effect was from the process used to transfer photographs to plates for printing and the printing process itself. I have seen many of these types of images from that period, the late 1800s to the early 1900s, and I wanted to know how they were made, so I started looking into it.

I did a lot of looking, too. I searched everywhere I could think of and I couldn’t find anything that answered my questions about how images like that were produced. So I decided to email my cute niece Holly, who has studied publishing at college (has a degree in it, I believe) and works for the audiobook publisher Blackstone Audio, and see if she could give me any references. She put the question to her graphics guy, James, who is knowledgeable about these sorts of things, and he looked at the images and had this to say:

“Though the book calls them illustrations, nowadays they’d be called photo illustrations. I don’t know what sort of technique they used back in 1919, but they’ve really skillfully taken photos, then drawn over parts of them to make the machinery, background and parts of the foreground look nicer. Can you imagine how difficult that would be without photoshop? Even with photoshop, you’d need to be a great illustrator to do that sort of thing.
In some areas you can kind of see where the photo ends and the illustration begins… [B]ut generally it’s pretty seamless.
Some of the images are pure illustrations [as] with any photos, but overall it looks like it’s about 70% drawings, 30% photos.”

 That makes a lot of sense to me, and goes a long way towards explaining the odd tonal scale in the photos. Holly sent a couple of examples that James captured, pointing out areas that showed the retouching, but they’re rather hard to make out due to the images falling apart from magnification so I didn’t include them. However, I’ve been able to put together some examples that are easier for those of us with untrained eyes to make sense of.


On one of my many scrounging expeditions looking for relevant information regarding the images in the Mesta booklet, I came across a website run by the University of Pittsburgh called Historic Pittsburgh. In their photo archives they have a section on the Mesta Machine Company in the Senator John Heinz History Center, and in that archive I found two photos that were used in the Mesta booklet that I use for the Mesta Memories posts. These photos provide a way to see a ‘before and after’ view of the retouching and just how extensive and skillfully it was done. The best way to see the differences is to download both pictures and load them into a image viewing program that allows you to flip back and forth between the photos. I’ve tried to size the photos so that the images are as close to the same size as I can get (using a ruler) in order to aid in comparing them here on the site.

First, here is the image from page 101 of the Mesta booklet:


Click on the image to enlarge

And here is the photo that was used to make it:

 molded-stagger-toothed-gearsThe retouching is pretty obvious on this pair, as the overexposed areas around the windows in the photo had to be completely redrawn for the printed image. To see a good example of the ‘halo effect’, examine the right-hand edges of both gears in the photo and compare them to the same edges in the printed image. It’s easy to see how the background along the edges was lightened in order to make the gear edges more sharply defined. Other places of interest are the hub areas of the gears that are cleaned up , and the shadow of the man’s arm that has been removed in the printed image.

Here is the image from page 97 of the Mesta booklet:


Click on the image to enlarge

And here is what is almost the original photo:

historic-pittsburg-mesta-gear-photoThe reason I say that it is the almost the original photo for the printed image is this: if you examine the man in the photo, his right arm is in a different position from the printed image, and if you compare the position of his head to the background, it is different between the photo and the print. There are also men standing behind the subject, and perhaps the photographer shooed them off between takes. I suppose that the retouching artist could have redrawn the subject, but it seems unlikely in this instance. The positions of everything else in the photo and the printed image appear to be the same, hence the term ‘almost original photo’.

One of the things about the images in the booklet that has always struck me is how clean all of the floors are. If you’ve ever been in a machine shop or a factory where lots of metalworking is going on, you just don’t have floors that are that clean, even after sweeping. Comparing the two images, you can see where the floor areas have been retouched to be all clean and pretty. Look at the shadow area under the gear for a good example of a cleaned up floor. Other places to note is the hub area, spokes, and teeth of the gear, and the details visible in the ceiling area.

Looking at the examples above, it’s pretty easy to see just how much work was done on the photos used in the Mesta booklet, and considering the number of photos used, the amount of labour required is incredible. The print shop most likely had an entire department devoted to performing such tasks, and that would be in line with what I’ve learned about how the printing industry worked in those days.


As for the method used for printing the Mesta booklet, I can only make a semi-educated guess. The reason for that is due to the myriad methods used for printing images, especially photographs, during that era. Holly and James were kind enough to send me a link to a reference (on the history of postcard printing, of all things) that explained a great many of the different methods of printing images used during the 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s a fascinating read, and the sheer number of methods for printing images that people concocted is astounding. Identifying which method was used for printing an image, however, is anything but straightforward. The results of many of the printing techniques resembled one another to varying degrees, and to make things even more complicated, the printers went to great lengths to make whatever printing method they were using at the time resemble another different, newer (or sometimes older) printing method that was more popular. Without having an original print to examine, it’s just about impossible to precisely determine how an image was printed, and all I have to work with are the low-resolution scans from the Internet Archive and my rudimentary understanding of the old methods of printing.

My best guess at how the Mesta booklet was printed is the rotogravure printing method which was quite popular at the time of the booklet’s printing in 1919. It’s also possible that the collotype printing method was used, as some of the images in the booklet appear to display the reticulation that results from that method of printing, but then again it could just be artifacts from the scanning process. Or maybe it’s my eyes. I’ve been staring at these photos for far too long and I could be seeing things. It requires someone with far more expertise than myself and access to the original prints to make any sort of accurate determination of the printing method/process.

So there you have it, that’s what I’ve come up with on how the ‘Mesta Memories’ images were made. If you have more information or theories to offer, feel free to add your two cents in comments.


MetropoPostcard Guide to Printing Techniques

Plant and product of the Mesta Machine Company, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.

Historic Pittsburgh Image Collections

And a big Thank You to Holly and James of Blackstone Audio!

  • Very cool! I had always thought those images looked odd, but could never quite put my finger on it.

  • PowerTryp

    This is truly awesome. I always felt that these images had a surreal feeling to them but to think that they were "touched up" to the extent that they were and still look like photographs is amazing. I love the second picture comparison because they brought the roof down to make the gear look more impressive.

  • FЯeeMan

    The man in the 2nd image also looks like he only has a right arm. In both images, it looks like the location for his left arm is empty, and his shoulder doesn't seem to be rolled back as it would be if it was behind him. Losing a limb in an early 1900s factory, then continuing back at work doesn't seem to be too shocking a proposition. Of course, he could be a veteran of the Great War, and may have left it in Germany or France, too.

    • The Professor

      Hi FЯeeMan! Long time no see, you slacker…;)
      It's really hard to determine the very fine details in the photos that are available. The Historic Pittsburgh site where I located the B&W photos only allows you to view lo-res versions of the photos, but the originals that they have are large format: either 8×10" or 11×14". I don't know why they won't allow access to the hi-res scans – probably want you to pay for the pictures that they got for free.
      Or, maybe the retoucher didn't like his arm in the picture and made it go away.

  • spatula6554

    Thank you for clarifying this point…like you say, something was off in these images (photos) that you could not put your finger on. These old photos clearly show the details one is looking for when seeing these sorts of images in pamphlets which lend considerable credence to material. Still, I wish I could have seen American cities in their manufacturing heyday back then in person; to make something like that with the techniques and materials available back then would have been an impressive accomplishment.

  • Number_Six

    This is fantastic. Thanks for tracking this down for us, Professor! Buddy in the first pic is a deadringer for Charles Bronson.

  • CaptianNemo2001

    They also did airbrushing to remove objects like telephone and telegraph lines from photos of such things as street corners. Also i have heard of rotogravure printing. But couldn't they have edited the photo and used a clear plastic sheet and put the illustration on that and then "re" taken the photo in a studio by locking the original photograph down and placing the clear sheet and illustration on top and then shooting it? That would combine the images and make for relatively easy printing.

    • The Professor

      This was done in 1919, and I don't believe that they had clear plastic sheets then.
      If you want to find out more about the printing and photo transfer methods used back then, check out that MetropoPostcard link. You'll learn more about it than you ever wanted to know.

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