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[Detail] General view of harbor at San Juan, Porto Rico looking South.

Collection Overview

Puerto Rico at the Dawn of the Modern Age, contains first-person accounts, political writings, and histories drawn from the Library of Congress's general collections. The materials in the collection, published between 1831 and 1929, portray the early history of the commonwealth of Puerto Rico. A few of the topics highlighted in the 39 political pamphlets, 13 monographs, and 1 journal include: the land and its resources, relations with Spain, the competition among political parties, reform efforts, and recollections by veterans of the Spanish-American War

Special Features

These online presentations provide context and additional information about this collection.

Historical Eras

These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection although they may not be all-encompassing.

  • Expansion and Reform, 1801-1861
  • The Civil War and Reconstruction, 1850-1877
  • Development of the Industrial United States, 1876-1915
  • Emergence of Modern America, 1890-1930

Related Collections and Exhibits

These collections and exhibits contain thematically-related primary and secondary sources. Also browse the Collection Finder for more related material on the American Memory Web site.

Other Resources

Recommended additional sources of information.

Search Tips

Specific guidance for searching this collection.

To find items in this collection, search by Keyword or broswe by Subject Index, Contributor Index, or Title Index.

For help with general search strategies, see Finding Items in American Memory.



Puerto Rico at the Dawn of the Modern Age is a rich collection of writings by prominent Puerto Rican political activists, authors, and historians. The collection consists of political pamphlets and monographs on government and politics, agriculture and botany, economics, education, and literature. Many of the early tracts, dating from the 1830s, are written in Spanish in a flowery style typical of the early nineteenth century and may be challenging even for students with a fluency in Spanish. Four books are in English, three pertaining to accounts of the Spanish-American War and one a travelogue of the island.

Puerto Rico at the Dawn of the Modern Age is not a socially comprehensive view of Puerto Rican history. The books and pamphlets in the collection were written by highly educated men of European descent whose perspectives inevitably differed from the viewpoints of the majority of Puerto Ricans. The lower socio-economic strata of Puerto Rican society, including individuals of African descent, are either neglected or viewed through paternalistic lenses.

The collection contains documents that can be used to study both world history and U.S. history. In world history, students can explore the political and economic transformation of Spanish colonial possessions in Puerto Rico and, to a lesser degree, Cuba, in the nineteenth century. The collection also provides insights into the development of American expansionism during the Spanish-American War and the changing role of the United States in world affairs.

To effectively use Puerto Rico at the Dawn of the Modern Age, students should examine "Related Resources" on the home page. Here students will find references to a number of American Memory collections that can be searched using Puerto Rico as the search term. In addition, students may be directed to The Spanish-American War in Motion Pictures for motion pictures produced between 1898 and 1901 using actual film footage and reenactments of battles during the Spanish- American War and Philippine Insurrection. Cartographic Items, gallery, presents a number of maps of the island in Map Collections: 1544-1999, the earliest dating from 1785. "In Search of a National Identity," a series of brief essays on the history of Puerto Rico in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, provides useful background information and context for the items in the collection.

World History: Transformations in the Americas

Puerto Rico at the Dawn of the Modern Age provides insight into the political, economic, and social transformations in the Americas in the nineteenth century. In addition, documents in the collection can help readers relate the Spanish-American War to U.S. participation in Western imperial expansion in the late nineteenth century.

The collection includes works by Salvador Brau, one of Puerto Rico’s leading historians. Brau’s "La colonización de Puerto Rico, desde el descubrimiento de la isla hasta la reversión á la corona española de los privilegios de Colón" is a classic study of the early period of Spanish rule in Puerto Rico, covering the years 1493-1550. He examined the impact of Spanish society on the native peoples and expressed considerable sympathy for their plight. Each chapter begins with a summary, and the appendices include copies of primary source documents important to the study of the island’s history.

In another work, "Puerto Rico y su historia: investigaciones críticas," Brau sought to correct factual errors in earlier works on Puerto Rico and relied on documents in the Archives of the Indies in Spain. He presented a copy of this study to General George W. Davis, Governor General of Puerto Rico, immediately after the close of the Spanish-American War.

In addition to being a historian, Brau was a journalist, novelist, and playwright. The collection includes an anthology of newspaper articles he wrote between 1880 and 1894. Titled "Ecos de la batalla. Artículos periodísticos," the anthology reflects the political ferment in Puerto Rico.

  • If you read Spanish, consider the titles of Brau’s three works from the collection. If you do not read Spanish, use a Spanish-English dictionary to make a rough translation of the titles. What do the titles reveal about the scope and focus of Brau’s work?
  • Find out more about Salvador Brau. What were his own political views? How might his life experience and views have given him a different perspective from that of a Spanish-born historian? Why is his work important in understanding Puerto Rico’s history?
Photo of a person in chains.

From "La cuestion social en las Antillas Espanolas."What do the information about Acosta and this illustration from the cover of a pamphlet published by the Secretaría de la Sociedad Abolicionista Española in 1872 suggest about slavery in Spanish colonies? How could you test your hypothesis?

In the 1780s, Inigo Abbad y Lasierra, a Spanish-born Catholic priest, wrote a history of Puerto Rico from the Spanish discovery through the late eighteenth century, "Historia geográfica, civil y natural de la isla de San Juan Bautista de Puerto-Rico." Pedro Tomás de Córdoba, secretary to the Captain General of Puerto Rico, 1816-1836, continued Abbad’s history from 1783 to 1831. Volumes 2 through 5 are included in the collection under Abbad’s title, "Memorias geográfica." De Córdoba presents a biased view of Spanish control and justifies Spain’s continued control over the island. In the mid 1860s, José Julian Acosta y Calbo revised Abbad’s study and published a "new edition," including annotations incorporating his own liberal philosophy favoring abolition of slavery and a reduction in Spanish control over trade and commerce.

On September 23, 1868, several hundred peasants revolted against Spanish rule near the town of Lares in western Puerto Rico. Liberals called for the abolition of slavery, freedom of the press, and independence from Spain and drew up a provisional constitution. The revolutionary "Army of Freedom" was quickly suppressed in their first clash with Spanish troops in the town of San Sebastián. Despite the prompt defeat, the liberal revolution, known as the Grito de Lares, is considered the beginning of Puerto Rico’s struggle for independence. The collection contains one account of the revolution, "Historia de la insurrección de Lares" by José Pérez Moris, an opponent of the movement.

The collection includes Rafael de Labra’s "La república y las libertades de ultramar" on the short-lived republican government established in Spain in 1873 and its impact on Cuba and Puerto Rico.

Rudolph Adams Middeldyk’s "History of Puerto Rico" was the first major history of Puerto Rico written in English. In Chapter XXV, Middeldyk dealt with "Political Events in Spain and Their Influence on Affairs in Puerto Rico." Read Chapter XXV and consider these questions:

  • What events was Middeldyk referring to when he said, "The events just summarized exercised a baneful influence on the social, political, and economic conditions of this and of its more important sister Antilla"? What reasons did he give for saying the effects on Puerto Rico and the other islands was negative?
  • How does Middeldyk describe the Spanish officials who governed Puerto Rico? Do you think his view was justified? Give examples to support your answer.
  • Make a timeline showing the events of 1868 as related by Middeldyk. According to Middeldyk, what were the insurrection’s consequences for politics in Puerto Rico?

U.S. History: American Expansionism and the Spanish-American War

page listing titles in the Expansion of the Republic Series.

Appletons’ Expansion of the Republic Series. From "History of Puerto Rico,"page 2. How, if at all, does putting Middeldyk’s work in the context of this series affect your thinking about the book or about the events it described? What additional titles might have been added to the series?

Rudolph Adams Middeldyk’s "History of Puerto Rico" can be used to explore American interest in the Spanish Antilles and the causes and immediate results of the Spanish-American War. In the preface, Martin Brumbraugh, the editor of the text, provided a general overview of Middeldyk’s work and wrote about the island’s liberation from Spanish colonial rule and its transformation to a democratic society under the tutelage of the United States.

These people do not suffer from the lack of civilization. They suffer from the kind of civilization they have endured. The life of the people is static. Her institutions and customs are so set upon them that one is most impressed with the absence of legitimate activities. The people are stoically content. Such, at least, was the condition in 1898. Under the military government of the United States much was done to prepare the way for future advance. . . The outlook of the people is now infinitely better than ever before. . . President McKinley declared to the writer that it was his desire "to put the conscience of the American people into the islands of the sea." This has been done. The result is apparent. Under wise and conservative guidance by the Amreican executive officers, the people of Puerto Rico have turned to this Republic with a patriotism, a zeal, an enthusiasm that is, perhaps without a parallel.

From "History of Puerto Rico," images vi-viii

Read the preface and discuss these questions:

  • What problems under Spanish rule did editor Brumbaugh cite?
  • What did Brumbaugh see as the Americans’ purpose in claiming Puerto Rico?
  • What positive consequences of the American takeover did Brumbaugh discuss? What negative consequences?
  • How would you characterize Brumbaugh’s attitude toward colonialism by Spain and the United States? List words and phrases from the preface to support your answer.

Read Chapter XXVI, "General Conditions of the Island--The Dawn of Freedom 1874—1898." Compare the narrative in this chapter with the preface.

  • According to Middeldyk, what were the causes of the economic problems that hit Puerto Rico in the 1870s and 1880s?
  • How did the government of Spain try to address the problems in Puerto Rico? Why did Middeldyk call these efforts "tardy"?
  • What did Middeldyk say about the Spanish-American War? Based on what he said, why do you think the United States claimed Puerto Rico?
  • Why do you think Middeldyk wrote so little about the Spanish-American War and events in Puerto Rico after the U.S. takeover? Does this suggest bias on the author’s part? Why or why not?

Two other English-language sources in the collection provide more information about the Spanish-American War. Karl Stephen Herrmann’s "A Recent Campaign in Puerto Rico by the Independent Regular Brigade Under the Command of Brig. General Schwan" gives an account of the Independent Regular Brigade’s encounters with Spanish forces in the western region of the island following the U.S. landing in July 1898. Herrmann was a participant in the campaign in Puerto Rico; he wrote a first-person account of events without losing sight of the broader scope of the conflict. His account includes General Nelson A. Miles’s proclamation to the inhabitants of Puerto Rico on July 28, 1898, three days after landing U.S. forces on the island:

To the Inhabitants of Puerto Rico:
In the prosecution of the war against the kingdom of Spain by the people of the United States, in the cause of liberty, justice, and humanity, its military forces have come to occupy the island of Puerto Rico. They come bearing the banner of freedom, inspired by a noble purpose to seek the enemies of our country and yours, and to destroy or capture all who are in armed resistance. They bring you the fostering arm of a free people, whose greatest power is in its justice and humanity to all those living within its fold. Hence the first effect of this occupation will be the immediate release from your former relations, and it is hoped a cheerful acceptance of the government of the United States. The chief object of the American military forces will be to overthrow the armed authority of Spain, and to give the people of your beautiful island the largest measure of liberty consistent with this occupation. We have not come to make war upon the people of a country that for centuries has been oppressed, but, on the contrary, to bring you protection, not only to yourselves, but to your property; to promote your prosperity, and bestow upon you the immunities and blessings of the liberal institutions of our government. It is not our purpose to interfere with any existing laws and customs that are wholesome and beneficial to your people so long as they conform to the rules of military administration of order and justice. This is not a war of devastation, but one to give all within the control of its military and naval forces the advantages and blessings of enlightened civilization.

Nelson A. Miles,

Major-General, Commanding United States Army.

From "A Recent Campaign in Puerto Rico by the Independent Regular Brigade under the Command of Brig General Schwan," images 32-33

  • How did General Miles try to convince the Puerto Rican people to support the U.S. invasion? What benefits did he promise for Puerto Rico?
  • According to Karl Stephen Herrmann, were these promises kept? What evidence did he give to support his answer?
  • What were the consequences for the U.S. soldier? Do you think there have been similar dynamics in more recent conflicts? Find evidence in other sources to support your answer.

Yellow Fever was a major cause of death during the Spanish-American War. George King wrote in "Letters of a Volunteer in the Spanish-American War" of the ravages of the epidemic among U.S. troops in Puerto Rico:

. . . The life in that swamp was an awful thing. It developed among 1,080 men, 116 pronounced cases of fever, three or four of them already fatal. We have had no ordeal like it, and of course shall have no other like it. For a week or so after we came up to town, fellows who had staved it off for the few days were constantly coming to light, but now for a week, everybody outside the hospital is bracing up.

The life we had been living was a terrible strain. I had been going as much on my nerve as anything else. When a chance came, I slept and squared up; but when it didn't come I lived on my nerve. Just how long I could have done it I don't know; luckily better quarters and news of peace came while I was still well within my strength.

From "Letters of a Volunteer in the Spanish-American War," image 88

Read textbook accounts of the effects of the Yellow Fever epidemic during the Spanish-American War and compare them with this and other references to the fever throughout King’s "Letters of a Volunteer." What can you learn from reading a primary source, like King’s letters, that you cannot learn from a textbook? What does this suggest about the uses of primary sources and secondary sources like texts?

During and after the Spanish-American War, U.S. soldiers and civilians wrote of the classes of people who inhabited the island and drew a distinct difference between the aristocrat of Spanish lineage and the mestizo (a person of mixed European and American Indian heritage). These writers observed the class-consciousness of the inhabitants of the island and typically characterized the average Puerto Rican as indolent and with few redeeming qualities. Karl Herrmann described the classes in Puerto Rican society, expressing criticism of the average Puerto Rican and hostility to the Catholic Church.

About one-sixth of the population in this island--the educated class, and chiefly of pure Spanish blood--can be set down as valuable acquisitions to our citizenship and the peer, if not the superior, of most Americans in chivalry, domesticity, fidelity, and culture. Of the rest, perhaps one-half can be moulded by a firm hand into something approaching decency; but the remainder are going to give us a great deal of trouble. They are ignorant, filthy, untruthful, lazy, treacherous, murderous, brutal, and black. Spain has kept her hand at their throats for many weary years, and the only thing that has saved them from being throttled is the powerful influence in their discipline effected by the Roman Catholic Church. When our zealous missionaries have succeeded in leading them into the confines of other creeds, we shall have all the excitement we want in Puerto Rico, and the part of our army stationed there will have no lack of exercise.

From "A Recent Campaign in Puerto Rico by the Independent Regular Brigade under the Command of Brig General Schwan," images 34-35

Writing from Utuado shortly before the end of the Spanish-American War, George King, a volunteer from Concord, Massachusetts, expressed a similar view.

  • How would you summarize Herrmann’s and King’s attitudes toward Puerto Ricans? How could you find out if their attitudes reflected the views of most Americans at the time?
  • How do these two writers suggest that the United States should deal with Puerto Ricans?
  • Conduct research on the subsequent relations between the United States and Puerto Rico. What attitudes or interests seem to have shaped U.S. policy?
  • Read the "American Perceptions, Puerto Rican Realities" section of the "In Search of a National Identity" essay that accompanies the collection. What insights does this essay provide regarding the influence of attitudes on U.S.-Puerto Rican relations?


Critical Thinking

Chronological Thinking: Creating and Interpreting Timelines

Use "The History of Puerto Rico, from the Spanish Discovery to the American Occupation" as the source to construct a timeline showing the history of Puerto Rico in the first 300 years following the arrival of Christopher Columbus. Draw the timeline down the center of a piece of paper. On the left side, show events in Puerto Rico; on the right, show events in Europe that influenced Puerto Rico's history. Based on your timeline, write a brief paragraph describing the links between European and Puerto Rican history.

Use the "In Search of a National Identity" essay to create a second timeline, this one showing the history of Puerto Rico in the nineteenth- and early-twentieth centuries and making links to events in the United States during the same time period. Based on your timeline, write a brief paragraph describing the links between U.S. and Puerto Rican history.

Do you find timelines useful in understanding links between events in different parts of the world? Explain your answer.

Chronological Thinking: Continuity and Change Over Time

A children's book about Puerto Rico, published in 1900, although making some disparaging remarks about the average Puerto Rican, gives a vivid view of Puerto Rican life and culture. The text examines the flora and fauna of the island in some detail and includes a number of sketches to hold the young reader's interest.
The author, Marian M. George, includes a "Teacher's Supplement" that includes suggestions for an activity centered around a classroom journey to Puerto Rico. Read the "Teacher's Supplement;" using your knowledge of how you have learned about places outside the 50 states, look for evidence of continuity and change in education about other cultures.

  • How is the learning activity described in the "Teacher's Supplement" similar to the ways you have learned about other cultures in your school career?
  • How is the learning activity described in the "Teacher's Supplement" different from the ways you have learned about other cultures in your school career?
  • What hypothesis about continuity and change in education about other cultures might you develop based on this analysis? How could you test your hypothesis?

Historical Comprehension: Using Historical Maps

Studying historical maps can provide insights into events in Puerto Rican history. For example, examining maps can help readers understand how Puerto Rico's strategic position in the Caribbean played a role in the history of the island. Look at the Cartographic Items gallery provided with the collection. The "Evening Post Map of Puerto Rico" dates from 1898. Examine the map; identify Puerto Rico and describe its location in as much detail as possible. Why would this location have strategic value for the United States in 1898? Do you think Puerto Rico's location is still important to the United States today? Why or why not?

Study the map below, which shows some important transportation routes in Puerto Rico, published in a 1900 book for young people.

  • Describe the location of the railroads in Puerto Rico in 1900. Why do you think the railroads were located where they were? You may want to compare the map with other maps provided in the Cartographic Items gallery.
  • Describe the location of the military roads in Puerto Rico. How might you explain the location of the military roads?
  • Why do you think military roads were shown on the map rather than other kinds of roads? How might you test your hypothesis?

Search George Glenn King's "Letters of a Volunteer in the Spanish-American War" for discussions of the island's climate and topography. Use maps in the Cartographic Items gallery to trace King's route during the Spanish American War. How did the island's climate and topography affect the movements of troops? The troops' experience as they traveled across the island?

Historical Analysis and Interpretation: Identifying Authors and Assessing Credibility

If you are fluent in Spanish, scan histories of Puerto Rico in the collection that were written to counteract errors and misconceptions regarding the history of the island. Use the Contributor Index to locate works by historians such as Salvador Brau and Cayetano Coll y Toste. Examine the point of view of authors such as José Pérez Moris and Pedro Tomás de Córdova to determine how their political perspectives may have influenced their accounts of the abortive Grito de Lares revolution or their appraisal of Spanish rule of Puerto Rico. Research the authors of these works to learn more about their views.

Historical Research: Obtaining Historical Data

When and why did the United States express an interest in Cuba and Puerto Rico? To what extent was the concept of manifest destiny a factor in American interests? To what extent was sugar cane a factor in promoting U.S. annexation of Puerto Rico?

How might you go about answering these questions? Obviously, you will need historical data from a variety of sources. Begin by tracing the history of Puerto Rico from the independence movements in Latin America in the 1820s to the annexation of the island by the United States following the Spanish-American War. Use sources from the collection, as well as other sources, to determine why the United States was willing to have Spain maintain its control over Cuba and Puerto Rico following the revolutions of the early nineteenth century. Consider how the Monroe Doctrine applied to Cuba and Puerto Rico. One potential source of information is A Century of Lawmaking, 1774-1873. If you search the collection using Puerto Rico as your search term, you will find such documents as "The Journal of the Senate of the United States, January 16, 1826," which includes several references to the Panama Congress called by Simón Bolivar. A search of Nineteenth-Century Periodicals, will provide information on the role missionaries played in the Americanization of Puerto Rico, as well as the debate about how the possessions gained through the Spanish-American War fit into the framework provided by the U.S. Constitution.

Historical Research: Formulating Historical Questions

When the Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the United States, new policies for governing the island were needed. Two laws that dealt with the civilian government of Puerto Rico were the Foraker Act (Organic Law), passed April 12, 1900, and the Jones Act, passed December 5, 1916. What questions do you have about these laws establishing U.S. policy toward governance of Puerto Rico? Write two or three research questions about the Foraker and Jones Acts and try to find answers to the questions. Do the answers give you a better understanding of the U.S.-Puerto Rico relationship in the early twentieth century?

The Supreme Court also became involved in determining how the new island possessions of the United States fit into the constitutional framework. They did so through a series of cases called the "Insular Cases," decided between 1901 and 1904. Write two or three research questions about the Insular Cases. For example, you might ask how these Court decisions affected U.S. political and economic policy in Puerto Rico. When you have framed your questions, conduct research to find the answers.

Historical Issues-Analysis and Decision-Making: Formulating a Position on an Issue

Assume the role of a foreign policy advisor to President McKinley on the eve of the 1898 negotiations of a treaty with Spain to end the Spanish-American War. Use sources from the collection, as well as other sources, to write a paper clearly formulating the position U.S. delegates should take regarding negotiations over Puerto Rico. What are the underlying factors that would influence your position? What alternative courses of action could be taken? What are the costs and benefits arising from your position on the issue?


Arts & Humanities

Writing: Letters Home from the Spanish-American War

Soldiers writing home often make efforts to convey their situations positively so that their loved ones do not worry. Read the following letters by George King, written during the Spanish-American War:

Compare what King said in his letters with what he said in the annotations added to the letters before publication.

  • What examples can you find of King downplaying the danger he and his compatriots faced? Why do you think he did so?
  • How did King use humor in his letters home?
  • Find instances when King acknowledged danger some time after it occurred. Why do you think he did this? (Remember that, at the time, military regiments were made up of men recruited from the same state or part of a state.)
  • What insights can you glean from King's letters regarding the life of a soldier during the Spanish-American War?

Find letters written by soldiers in other wars. How are their accounts similar to or different from King's letters? Write a paragraph describing the art of writing letters home from a war.

Descriptive Writing

The natural world provides the subject matter for much descriptive writing. In describing the natural world, writers try to paint a word picture. For example, consider this description of the natural setting in Puerto Rico:

Puerto Rico is the fourth in size of the greater Antilles. Its first appearance to the eye of the stranger is striking and picturesque. Nature here offers herself to his contemplation clothed in the splendid vesture of tropical vegetation. The chain of mountains which intersects the island from east to west seems at first sight to form two distinct chains parallel to each other, but closer observation makes it evident that they are in reality corresponding parts of the same chain, with upland valleys and table-lands in the center, which again rise gradually and incorporate themselves with the higher ridges. . . . The summit of this ridge is almost always enveloped in mist, and when its sides are overhung by white fleecy clouds it is the certain precursor of the heavy showers which fertilize the northern coast. . . .

All the large islands in the tropics enjoy approximately the same climate. The heat, the rains, the seasons, are, with trifling variations, the same in all, but the number of mountains and running streams, the absence of stagnant waters and general cultivation of the land in Puerto Rico do, probably, powerfully contribute to purify the atmosphere and render it more salubrious to Europeans than it otherwise would be. In the mountains one enjoys the coolness of spring, but the valleys, were it not for the daily breeze which blows from the northeast and east, would be almost uninhabitable for white men during part of the year. The climate of the north and south coasts of this island, though under the same tropical influence, is nevertheless essentially different. On the north coast it sometimes rains almost the whole year, while on the south coast sometimes no rain falls for twelve or fourteen months. On the whole, Puerto Rico is one of the healthiest islands in the West Indies, nor is it infested to the same extent as other islands by poisonous snakes and other noxious reptiles. . . .

From "History of Puerto Rico," images 185-186, 189-190

Look for other descriptions of the natural setting, either in Spanish (if you read that language) or in English.

  • What descriptive words or phrases are used by multiple authors?
  • What unique descriptions can you find?
  • What descriptions are most helpful in creating a mental image of the natural setting? Why?

Write descriptions of a natural feature near the school and analyze class members' writing using the questions above.


An author may dedicate a book to show esteem, gratitude, or affection for the dedicatee. In previous centuries, books were often dedicated to the author's patron, a person who provided monetary support while the book was being written. The dedication in such cases was sometimes fawning, describing the patron in glowing terms.

A careful reading of a dedication can provide some insight into the author. For example, the reader may make different assumptions if the author dedicates a book to a well-known liberal thinker rather than a renowned conservative thinker. Personal dedications can provide information about the author's family life.

Several books and pamphlets in the Puerto Rico at the Dawn of the Modern Age collection include author dedications. Find and read the dedications in the following documents. Because dedications are short, even those who do not read Spanish should be able to make a rough translation using a Spanish-English dictionary, print or online, of each dedication to get a sense of the author's intent:

To whom are these works dedicated? Many of the dedications are flattering. Why might this be the case? Which dedication do you find most informative in terms of providing some insight into the author?

Read some dedications in current nonfiction books. To whom are the works dedicated? How are the dedications similar to or different from the dedications in the works listed above?

Imagine that you are writing a nonfiction book about the history of your state. To whom would you dedicate the book? Why would you choose this person? What would you say about the person?

Book Design: Graphic Ornamentation

Graphic design is the process of selecting and arranging visual elements to convey meaning. Although graphic design has been employed since ancient times, changes in technology, aesthetic preferences, and the imaginations of individual designers have changed the practice of visual communication.

One design element that has changed over time is the use of graphic ornamentation. For example, in some times, decorative initials like the two capital letters shown above have been popular ways of ornamenting the page. Study the two decorative initials closely and look at the pages on which they appear.

  • What similarities do you see between the two decorative initials? What differences do you see?
  • As you look at the pages on which these decorative initials appear, do you find the decorative initials complement the other elements of the page (font size and style, page layout, etc.)? Explain your answers.
  • Do you think the decorative initials help convey meaning? Do they make the page more readable? More attractive? How effective do you find the decorative initials to be as a design element?

Look through several twenty-first century books to find at least two that use decorative initials. How do these contemporary decorative initials compare to the examples from the late nineteenth century? What do you think accounts for the persistence of this graphic element over time?

Browse through documents in Puerto Rico at the Dawn of the Modern Age and choose another example of graphic ornamentation. Analyze the example using the questions above. Look through the contemporary books to see if the type of ornamentation you identified is still in use today and, if so, how its styling and use are similar and different to the historic example.