When the first copies of St. Nicholas rolled off the presses, Bell hadn’t demonstrated his telephone, gas lighting was still turning people’s faces green, and tricycles were a fashionable (and modest) vehicle for adults. Printing wasn’t as speedy as it sounds, either: each issue of St. Nicholas took a good three months to prepare, and the illustrations were part of the problem. Photographs weren’t used until the late 1880s: each illustration had to be drawn, then carefully engraved (at least by the looks of it) so that it could be reproduced in black and white (no colours, except sepia on the covers). The artists weren’t usually credited in the monthly copies, either -- the only place I found their names was in the annual volume table of contents (individual issues don’t seem to have a table of contents....).
Drawings tended towards realism in the 1870s, unless they were intended to be comical -- and even then, hardly anybody smiled (much like the photographs taken last century -- everyone looks exceptionally solemn, or maybe it just hurt to smile for as long as it took to capture the photo). For instance, take a look at Addie Ledyard’s drawing of Phoebe and Rose from Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins (1874). Ledyard is considerably lighter in line than her contemporaries, but the two girls still look pretty solemn, considering they're supposed to be laughing. Contrast Ledyard, though, with the more typical illustration from Alcott’s Under the Lilacs (1877), drawn by Mary Hallock Foote. These two girls are supposed to be having fun on their way to a teaparty . . .
Death and mortality were common subjects (even in children’s magazines), with a preoccupation with nature pulling a close third. "Jeanette and Jo", an illustration for Mary Mapes Dodge's poem by the same name, typically contrasts pessimism with optimism in the characters of these two girls: one’s weeping while the other gazes hopefully at the great outdoors. Notice the great detail given in this drawing; "Jacob Seizes the Hawser," done by C. S. Reinhart for J. T. Trowbridge's His Own Master, is similar. It depicts, however, a drowning (and fainting) female being rescued by our conscious hero (pity).
For a lesson in popular fashions for the younger male, check out Addie Ledyard’s 1876 drawing "Our Master" Obviously long hair, dainty white lace dresses and very large sashes were very in at the time for the smaller set, while very large dogs complete the picture. Thankfully, though, older boys looked fairly normal, at least as shown in this anonymous illustration drawn for William O. Stoddard’s serial story Dab Kinzer: The Story of a Growing Boy.
Howard Pyle has two contrasting styles in the 1870s: the first conforms to the detailed realism of its time, while the second is a complete departure from that. "Kitty and the Turkish Merchant," the frontispiece for April 1878, illustrates Sarah Keables Hunt's story "How Kitty was Lost in a Turkish Bazaar," and is faithful down to the buttons on Kitty's boots. Pyle’s second style seems to follow the influence of Mr. Hopkins (no first name given), who created charming silhouettes throughout the 1876 volume: compare these two samples of Hopkin's work with Pyle’s 1878 silhouette, created as part of a set for S.C. Stone's poem "How Willy Wolly Went A-Fishing".
The 1870s ended with a coup: Kate Greenaway contributed several drawings to the 1879 St. Nicholas, including illustrations for Children's Day at St. Pauls, and the charming illustration (at the top of this page) for a poem. Notice her lightness of touch compared with the heavy drawings of the earlier part of the decade. By the end of the 1870s, the children reading the magazine could build their own telephone, marvel (through the magazine's pages) at the extraordinary whiteness of electric light, and go to a riding school for (you guessed it) bicycle lessons.