1856 – “Coldest Winter on Record.”

1856 -- Coldest Winter on Record

digital file from original print“Scene on the Delaware River at Philada. during the severe winter of 1856” by James Fuller Queen.  Lithograph (At head of title: Souvenir of the coldest winter on record.) Library of Congress image.

World Digital Library:

In the mid-19th century, the winter of 1856 was known as the coldest on record. This genre scene from Philadelphia shows hundreds of persons skating and sledding on the frozen Delaware River in front of the old Navy Yard at Southwark. The participants include men pushing women in chairs with blades, men pushing a sleigh of women passengers, a man pulling a boy on a sled, and a man being pulled by a dog running through a crowd of skaters. In the foreground, a couple stands and watches; a woman peddler, seated on a stool, sells an apple to a boy; and a man has fallen on the ice, near two other boys. In the background, a ride has been fabricated with several men pushing a large pivoted pole lever to propel a toboggan of women passengers. Moored ships, steamboats, and sailing vessels line the shore. Also seen in the print is a distant cityscape of Philadelphia. The work is by James Fuller Queen, a Philadelphia lithographer and pioneer chromolithographer known for his attention to detail.

Henry David Thoreau – March 10, 1856:

I have not seen a tree sparrow, methinks, since January. Probably the woods have been so generally buried by the snow this winter that they have migrated further south. There has not been one in the yard the past winter, nor a redpoll. I saw perhaps one redpoll in the town; that is all. The pinched crows are feeding in the road to-day in front of the house and alighting on the elms, and blue jays also, as in the middle of the hardest winter, for such is this weather. The blue jays hop about in yards.

The past has been a winter of such unmitigated severity that I have not chanced to notice a snow-flea, which are so common in thawing days.

I go over the fields now in any direction, sinking but an inch or two to the old solid snow of the winter. In the road you are on a level with the fences, and often considerably higher, and sometimes, where it is a level causeway in summer, you climb up and coast down great swells of hard-frozen snow, much higher than the fences. I may say that I have not had to climb a fence this winter, but have stepped over them on the snow.


Interestingly, while researching the background for the image at top and “the worst winter on record,” I came across another image that was very similar by a different artist, sown to nearly identical subjects in virtually identical positions.  Nineteenth century plagiarism, perhaps?


“Winter on the River Delaware, 1856” by David J. Kennedy, painting (Historical Society of Pennsylvania image)

Inscription Text: Winter on the River Delaware opposite the Old U.S. Navy Yard, Federal Street Wharf in 1856. Philadelphia, a sleighing party enjoying themselves. Thermometer 7 below zero.

Another Library of Congress image of the same scene is a graphite and color drawing by James Queen, probably a study done to capture the essence of the scene that was later used for the lithograph.

Scene on the Delaware River


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