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Edward S. Curtis's The North American Indian
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The North American Indian in the Northwestern University McCormick Library of Special Collections – a description

The North American Indian (1907-1930), by Edward S. Curtis, was published in a limited edition and sold by subscription.

The lavishly illustrated volumes were printed on the finest paper (Dutch etching stock or Japanese tissue paper) and bound in expensive leather, making the price prohibitive for all but the most avid collectors and libraries.

Subscriptions started at $3000 on the Van Gelder paper in 1907; by 1924 the base price had risen to $4200. 1

tabletop view of a volume and portfolio plates

Although the plan was to sell 500 sets, it appears that Curtis secured just over 220 subscriptions over the course of the project, and printed less than 300 sets.

In 1935 the assets of the project were liquidated, and the remaining materials were sold to the Charles Lauriat Company, a rare book dealer in Boston. Lauriat acquired nineteen unsold sets of The North American Indian, thousands of individual prints, sheets of unbound paper, and the handmade copper photogravure plates. The book dealer printed a sales brochure and sold nearly seventy more sets at the reduced price of $1245 each. The sets sold apparently included the nineteen remaining original sets plus additional ones made up from loose sheets and newly printed plates. 2

Physical description

The set owned by Northwestern consists of twenty volumes containing text and illustrations, plus twenty accompanying portfolios of individual plates.

Each volume measures 12 inches high, 10 inches wide and about 3 2/5 inches thick. Volumes 1-14 were bound by H. Blackwell, while volumes 15-20 were bound by Whitman Bennett, NY, as indicated at the top of the front free flyleaf.
tabletop view of a volume

Each original half- leather binding is gold stamped on the spine with simple line decoration, the sets title, author, volume number (roman numerals), volume title (tribe names) and publication date. Each volume is currently housed in a linen-covered drop spine box.

The text block within each volume measures 11 inches high, 9 1/2 inches wide and varies between 2 and 2 1/2 inches thick. The text itself occupies an area 8 1/8 inches high by 5 inches wide on each page.

The deckle edge portfolio sheets measure just over 22 inches high and 18 inches wide. They are enclosed in folded board covers.

Contents of the volumes

Although the twenty volumes of The North American Indian were issued over a period of twenty-three years, the format of the contents remained fairly consistent.

Each volume features one or several related tribes from Indian culture areas, ranging from the Plains to the Southwest, Northwest, and Alaska. Extensive chapters on each tribe include descriptions of customs and folklore. Songs were recorded and transcribed for the project. Appendices or “tribal summaries” and charts present detailed data such as comparative vocabularies, demographics, and social structures.

title page of volume 1

Apparently, portions of the volumes were assembled and printed in discrete segments. Sometimes project staff would develop content for several volumes simultaneously.

Component text and illustration sections of the volumes and portfolios have independent, parallel methods of organization. In the volumes unnumbered pages with photogravures (“illustrations”) averaging 5 x 7 inches are inserted between every two pages of text regardless of chapter or section breaks. Often the volume illustrations provide additional scenes of sites depicted in the larger portfolio plates. In some cases they show a variant of the same subject (note two portraits of the young woman named Kenowun, a Nunivak, in volume 20 and its accompanying portfolio).

Table of Contents for volume 1
List of Illustrations for volume 20

Contents of the portfolios

A portfolio of around thirty large, unbound plates was produced to complement each volume. Each includes a sheet of captions entitled "List of large plates supplementing volume . . .]". Apparently Curtis and his staff selected the most artistic views to be reproduced as the portfolio prints, which averaged 11 x 14 inches on large sheets. Many are portraits. The portfolios are not cited in the volume table of contents or indexes. But occasional volume footnotes cite a portfolio plate, and a few plate captions refer back to the volume narrative, especially for biographical information on portrait subjects. The plates are numbered consecutively, totaling 722.

List of Large Plates for volume 20

At the onset of the project Curtis planned to help support field research through sales of individual plates. Many were among the loose sheets acquired by the Lauriat Company in 1935. After the engraving plates were rediscovered in the 1970s, modern prints have been struck.


pictograph from title page of volume 19

Click to view pictograms for all twenty volumes


1 Mick Gidley, Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indian, Incorporated (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 110.

2 The North American Indian Project. Flury & Company Ltd. 12 December 2003. ; Cost of reissued sets noted in sales brochure from Lauriat Company, c. 1935.


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Last updated October 28th, 2003
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