Early Printing of the Declaration of Independence on Silk, 1820

Presented is a rare and magnificent early printing of the Declaration of Independence on silk. The silk broadside was made by H. Brunet, in Lyon, France specifically for the American market. The design was based on the 1819 engraving on paper by William Woodruff. Printed in 1820, this silk broadside was one of the earliest printings of the Declaration, in any form, sold to the American public. 

Following the War of 1812, Americans began to look back, for the first time with historical perspective, on the era of the founding of the country. With nostalgia and curiosity, many Americans began to examine the details of the nation’s founding. Documents like the debates of the Constitutional Convention, first laws of the United States, and the Declaration were printed for public consumption for the first time. 

Entrepreneurial publishers hoped to fill this demand and rushed to produce the first engraved printing of the Declaration of Independence. The first to do so was Benjamin Owen Tyler in 1818, who produced an elegantly staid engraving with impressively faithful facsimile signatures. Tyler’s business rival John Binns started his own design more than a year before Tyler, yet his more decorative engraving was not published until 1819, two months on the heels of an eerily similar Declaration design by Philadelphia printer William Woodruff. In this very competitive market, Binns went so far as to sue Woodruff for stealing his design, but was unsuccessful in his lawsuit. These three Declaration designs were followed in 1820 by an ornamental broadside by Eleazar Huntington and the silk broadside offered here.

In this 1820 design by Frenchman H. Brunet, the text of the Declaration of Independence is printed in black ink at the center of the silk. The important text is framed by a decorative leaf and acorn wreath border. The border contains distinctive portraits of the first three Presidents, George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferon, two of whom were still living at the time, as well as the official seals of the original thirteen states. The seals and portraits are surmounted by a patriotic display of trumpets, flags, two overflowing cornucopias, and a spread-wing Federal eagle. 

Although almost identical to the Woodruff broadside, this silk by Brunet differs in several ways. The most noticeable is the addition of a strong black outer border, punctuated with repeating, white six-pointed stars. The arrangement of the body of the text and the calligraphic signatures are slightly different. The title is almost exactly the same, with the additional reference to Woodruff as inspiration in this Brunet printing. It reads "To the People of the United States this Engraving of Declaration of Independence is most respectfully inscribed: Woodruff.” Brunet’s signature can be found in script, wrapping around the bottom center medallion: "Lith di H. Brunet Cie. a Lyon."

Although this broadside is not pictured in Herbert Collins' definitive Threads of History: Americana Recorded on Cloth, Collins refers to its existence in his description of a very similar design lithographed by "Decomberause" of Lyons, France. Lyons was a hub of French silk production during the 1820s and 30s. Interestingly, Collins calls this example a "bandana," but the distinctly rectangular shape is more consistent with a broadside on silk, a documented practice of the time. The other similar examples listed by Collins are more square and might better be considered bandanas.  

Between 1820 and 1840, it was a common practice to print a very limited number of presentation copies of important broadsides on silk. To give an example, the original ledger book for Benjamin Owen Tyler’s 1818 Declaration broadside lists roughly 1,694 copies sold on paper, 40 vellum versions, 3 linen printings, and only 3 printed on silk. Due to both their scarcity and the significant cost of silk, these silk broadsides were accorded a premium value in the marketplace over paper versions of a similar nature.  

Now, because of their notoriously fragile medium, silk broadsides are especially coveted. Historical silk pieces like this one are rarely seen on the market and thus would surely be a stunning addition to any serious American history collection. 


Condition is excellent for the medium. The silk retains its full sheen. Printing is bold and well struck, with rich tone and clarity to the details. The publisher’s details "H. Brunet et Lie, Lyons, France," are found at bottom. There are only a few small spots of light water staining and only one tiny 0.25" hole toward the bottom margin. The silk measures 30" H x  21 1/4" W with full margins and selvage at the top and bottom.

The silk has been archivally framed in a custom built, black and gold archival wooden frame, black silk acid-free mats, gold fillets, UV plexiglas, and a custom gold-leaf descriptive plaque.  Framed Dimensions: 46" H x 36 3/4" W x 2 1/2" D.

Related Items