The Picture File was created and maintained beginning in the 1950s by the Duke University Manuscript Department staff and its institutional successors as a vertical file of pictorial works separated from manuscript collections as well as acquired individually. The collection is large and diverse, with images dating from the 18th through the 20th centuries. Engravings feature prominently, with photographs a close second. The predominant genre is portraits of political and military leaders, authors, artists, physicians, scientists, and others. Members of the Duke family and others from Durham, N.C. are also present. In the Socialist Party Series there are numerous images of leader Eugene Debs. Topics range widely, with a focus on American history, including the Revolutionary and Civil Wars; history and culture of the southern U.S.; and U.S. and European politics. A significant number of individuals in the People Series are African Americans, ranging from individual studio portraits to groups of individuals and racist caricatures and cartoons; a smaller number are of Native Americans.
The Picture File is a large and diverse collection of visual materials ranging from the 17th through the 20th centuries. The bulk of the images in the collection date from the early 1800s through the 1950s. The dominant formats are engravings and photographs. Specific formats include: cartes de visite, cabinet cards, and other albumen prints; tintypes and daguerreotypes (cased and uncased); engravings, lithographs, and other mechanical prints; caricatures and cartoons; watercolors; sketches; postcards; stereographs; small souvenir albums; leaflets; and small broadsides. There are a few cyanotypes and negatives.
The images offer views from most of the southern United States, especially North and South Carolina and Virginia. Many images are from Europe, with a smaller number from Japan and China; a large variety of other countries and locations are represented by a few images. The history of Durham is also well-represented, in addition to other Southern cities and towns, including Raleigh N.C. Many political and military leaders and notable personages, primarily from the U.S. and Europe are present in portraits and caricatures; there are numerous images of Eugene Debs, U.S. Socialist Party leader, and members of the Duke family of Durham, N.C. A significant number of individuals in the People Series are African Americans, ranging from individual studio portraits to groups of individuals and racist caricatures and cartoons; a smaller number are of Native Americans.
The Subjects Series is eclectic, including advertising, cartoons, tobacco, ships, and images from conflicts: Civil War images are abundant, offering views of battles and devastation both rural and urban. There are also scenes from the American Revolutionary War, Spanish-American War, and both World Wars. Finally, the Picture File is home to collections of many engravings and lithographs produced by the 19th century American companies Currier and Ives, L. Prang and Co., and Kurz and Allison; many of them commemorate military leaders or events.