Images in the Public Domain

Do you need an image that's already got copyright clearance? Consider the venerable Pictorial Archive series from Dover Publications, a rich source of public domain illustrations, graphics, typefaces, and design of all kinds. Here are the covers of just a few representative Pictorial Archive titles.

Hayward Cirker (1927-2000), the founder of one of the quirkiest publishing houses around, was a connoisseur of graphic design who had deep pockets and a singular vision. (I know. I worked for him in the early 1980s on the production of the Pictorial Archive series. I've included a bit of the firm's history below.) Cirker used to buy rare illustrated books at auction and turn them over to an artist who would select the best imagery and arrange it for faithful reproduction in an inexpensive paperback Pictorial Archive edition.

Cirker often said that the one picture that a buyer could take from his books and reuse freely was "worth the price of admission." Borrowing a book of copyright-free illustrations from the library costs nothing, and guarantees that the artwork chosen can be used without concern about copyright violation. Most of the material is in crisp black and white, but some is in color. Many of the books published since the 1990s come packaged with CDs for ease of use in an electronic world.

Artists, designers, and crafters have taken advantage of the Pictorial Archive series for generations. Whether a project calls for the precise woodcut illustrations that adorned 19th-century magazines and trade catalogs, authentic design motifs from the world's artistic traditions, period fashion and ornament, or well-rendered clip art on any theme, there's a Dover Pictorial Archive book that will save you time and worry.

Hayward and his wife Blanche started the business by reprinting scientific works during World War II, but eventually expanded their product line to include musical scores, paper doll and coloring books, classic fiction, phrase books, needlework, and much more. Dover's business model was unique in the industry. By mining the public domain, he kept his costs low. As the New York Times wrote in his obituary, "The rare-and-forgotten route also often had the added advantage of long-dead authors, which meant minimal royalties and little editorial squabbling."

Long before Amazon, he pioneered mail-order sales of books to a fiercely loyal readership, capitalizing on their interests to develop publishing programs that met strongly felt needs. He spurned many offers to sell his company to the big midtown publishers. He operated out of an unfashionable industrial building near the Holland Tunnel, and later moved to even less glamorous precincts on Long Island. After his death, Dover was purchased by the printing house that had maintained his high production standards for decades. Many of the Pictorial Archive books have remained in print for years, a testimony to their perennial usefulness.

Sure, you can find visuals with a Google Image search, but you can never be certain that someone doesn't own the rights. Search our library catalog using the key words "Dover pictorial archive." You'll be astonished by what you'll discover that's free for the taking. Consider these:

Flowers, Butterflies and Insects: All 154 Engravings from "Erucarum Ortus"

261 North American Indian Designs

Handbook of Pictorial Symbols: 3,250 Examples from International Sources

Full-Color Sourcebook of French Fashion: 15th to 19th Centuries

Doré Spot Illustrations: A Treasury from His Masterworks

The image at the top of this post is from 1001 Illuminated Initial Letters by Owen Jones.

The one near the bottom is from Japanese Design Motifs: 4,260 Illustrations of Japanese Crests compiled by the Matsuya Piece-Goods Store.

Written by Joe Cahn on August 21, 2013


Anonymous on August 22, 2013


These are invaluable sources of imagery for art and craft projects. I've used them in designs for embroidery, block printing, mosaic, furniture painting and more. And how fun to read the fascinating, inside story of Dover Publications. Thanks.


I'm glad you enjoyed the glimpse into Dover's history. Thanks for listing the many ways you've used Pictorial Archive images. It added a lot to the post.

Anonymous on October 20, 2014


Does anyone know of other sources for these types of images?

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