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Lithograph City

Red ball iconLithograph City

by Bill J. Bunker


This lithograph was published in Clement Webster's 1915 issue of Contributions to Science to help illustrate the quality of Iowa's lithographic limestone for printing.


Before printed books, certain aspects of culture such as history, laws, and church liturgy were preserved only by memory. The first manuscripts were hand-written on papyrus sheets which were glued together and rolled up. The rise of mechanical printing techniques involved blocks of wood, raised type molded of metal, or images engraved into wood or metal. With the advent of movable type and the production of bound pages, the written word has become more accessible to the general population.

Near the end of the 18th century, the technique of lithography was invented by a young Bavarian playwright, Aloys Senefelder, who sought an inexpensive means of reproducing his scripts. He found that text could be reproduced from smooth slabs of dense, fine-grained limestone inked with a preparation of wax, soap, lampblack and water. Lithography, as this process came to be known, is derived from the Greek words for "stone" and "writing." It is based on the concept that grease and water will not mix, and that greasy inks will adhere to an already greased surface while unmarked areas will remain clean provided the stone is kept damp during the operation.

Many types of limestone have been used in lithography, but the world's best lithographic stone has traditionally come from quarries near the town of Solnhofen in the Jura Mountains of Bavaria (Germany), where the Senefelder family lived. These deposits of Jurassic-age limestone are superior because their fine granularity and chemical purity produce stable and consistent reactions in the process of drawing and printing. Vast quantities of these stones, cut and prepared in a variety of sizes, were shipped to the United States during the 19th century for use in commercial lithography.

At the turn of the 20th century, a town in north-central Iowa was founded because of this interest in high-quality lithographic stone. Sedimentary rocks in this part of Iowa include compact, laminated, lithographic limestones which were deposited during Devonian time (about 370 million years ago) as limey muds in shallow tidal-flat environments associated with cycles of worldwide lowering of sea level. These limestones are exposed along the Cedar River valley near the Floyd-Mitchell county line, and in 1914 they prompted Clement Webster, an enterprising citizen of Marble Rock, to establish a settlement called Lithograph City. Here the limestone was quarried and marketed to compete with the more expensive, imported Bavarian stone.


Lewis Quarry  

Lewis Quarry, southwest of Osage, Mitchell County. "XX" Beds of fine grained lithographic stone.


Gable Quarry  

Gable Quarry, southwest of Osage, Mitchell County, Iowa. "XX" Beds of fine grained lithographic stone.

The preceding color plates from the Iowa Geological Survey 1903 Annual Report were printed on stone from Mitchell County.


In the 1903 Annual Report of the Iowa Geological Survey, Samuel Calvin noted that samples of Iowa's lithographic stone were submitted for testing to the lithographing house of A. B. Hoen & Company of Baltimore, Maryland. Hoen's "Discussion of the Requisite Qualities of Lithographic Limestone, with Report on Tests of the Lithographic Stone of Mitchell County, Iowa" was also published in this volume.

Clement Webster himself published a journal called Contributions to Science, and the June, 1915 edition is devoted to "Lithographic Stone at Lithograph City, Iowa" and includes 31 photographs, plates, and endorsements from lithographing companies. Webster recounts that in 1903 the Interstate Investment and Development Company of Charles City submitted samples of stone from its Lithograph City quarries to the Iowa Publishing and Lithographing Company of Davenport, Iowa. This firm reported the stone's quality as equal to the best German stone for high-grade lithography and placed the material on exhibit at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis. These stone products from the Lithograph City quarries were judged in open competition by an international jury and took the gold, silver, and bronze medals as well as the Grand Prize Award.

The onset of World War I curtailed the importation of Bavarian stone, and the operation at Lithograph City was expanded to meet the anticipated demand for quality stone. By 1915, Webster's community consisted of 15 houses, a hotel, general store, blacksmith shop, lumber yard, stone crushing and polishing plant, dance hall, and museum. The quarries operated for only a short period, however, and the town failed to prosper as metal engraving replaced lithographic stone in providing good quality printing at lower cost. After 1915, the town's name was changed to Devonia. A post office was never established, so the town is rarely found on maps or listed with abandoned towns in Iowa. By 1938 it was reported to be completely plowed under.

Today the stone, chemicals, inks, and papers of lithography are largely the craft of artists and artisan-printers. In 1960, the Tamarind Lithography Workshop Inc. was established in Los Angeles under a grant from the Ford Foundation for the purpose of providing a new stimulus to the art of lithography in the United States. In 1968, a representative of Tamarind Workshop visited Iowa to evaluate the potential of using stone from Lithograph City. Preliminary results indicated that its quality compared very well with Solnhofen stone, as had been determined early in the century. In the course of their studies, however, it was discovered that white onyx could be used as a substitute, and its availability in large quantities and slab sizes for relatively low cost, combined with the costs of reopening the quarries at Lithograph City, essentially removed Iowa from further consideration.

During 1985 and 1986, geologists with the Geological Survey Bureau redefined the stratigraphic framework of Devonian aquifers in Floyd and Mitchell counties, and they recognized widespread, repetitive patterns of lithographic limestones in this part of the state. They gave the name Lithograph City Formation to this distinct sequence of rock (part of the Cedar Valley Group) and established its type-section at the old quarry exposures near the historic site. To date no studies have been undertaken to evaluate the printing characteristics of the additional lithographic stone in Iowa.


Adapted from Iowa Geology 1991, No. 16, Iowa Department of Natural Resources