Edward W. Clay has long been an intriguing figure for those who study the history of America’s color-line, frequently remembered as the originator of an enduring visual vocabulary of race and inequality. Clay's print series “Life in Philadelphia” circulated widely through print shops from Philadelphia and New York to Baltimore and New Orleans. It spawned a parallel series titled “Life in New York.” Clay’s images adorned sheet music and were mass produced in miniatures. In London, they were incorporated into book illustrations and sold in elaborated color editions. In France, Clay’s images even made their way into refined circles as they were incorporated into fine wallpaper. While these forms were ephemeral, their appeal was not. Even at the end of the nineteenth century, commentators noted encounters with Clay’s images in prominent public venues.

Clay’s ideas about race were quickly taken up by others. A countless number of nineteenth century engravers, lithographers, cartoonists, and illustrators adopted Clay’s visual strategies to transform what began as a local look at black life in Philadelphia into a national taxonomy of race. His ideas, ones that interwove social, political, and corporeal commentary on blackness, dominated American visual culture’s contribution to national debates over race and power.