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Date posted:  March 21, 2016

Often discovered in the forgotten niches of old attics and barn lots, the lithographic prints of Currier & Ives reveal with great clarity and force, images of mid-19th century America. They yield the most extensive visual display of an era which could otherwise only be lived through the written pages of history.

Judged strictly as art alone, Currier & Ives prints may have had a difficult time surviving the passage of time. Although this well-known firm reproduced some of the most prominent artists of its time and employed the finest lithographers, their primary purpose was to provide the people of the day a view of their world, at a price the most common person could afford. These artists and workers on stone were chroniclers of history.

Self-described as “Publishers of Cheap and Popular Pictures,” Currier & Ives produced well over 7,000 individual lithographs during their 60-plus years of business. The number of prints produced from each stone engraving is not known, since very few records were kept or survived through the years. Few prints have fared well over time, despite their prolific popularity and distribution. Because they were first sold inexpensively (for as little as 20 cents to three dollars) they were often mishandled or tossed aside, forgotten as newer pictorial reproduction methods began to emerge. However, at the time of their introduction, these prints provided the first glimpse of American life to the public. By the end of the era and close of their business, the Currier & Ives collection provided the greatest panoramic picture of an emerging nation.

The year was 1835 and the primary mode of transportation was horse-drawn carriages, wagons and steamships. Texas was still a part of Mexico and the Great American West was an enigma to the majority of Americans and Europeans. The use of color illustrations was virtually unknown in the publishing business. There were newspapers, a few magazines and only a small number of book publishers.

Nathaniel Currier, a young lithographer who had apprenticed a few years earlier in America’s first commercially successful lithography firm, had just opened his own business in New York, printing sheet music and other commissioned lithographs. On January 13, 1840, the popular steamboat, Lexington, burned and sank in Long Island Sound and the direction of Currier’s business was to change forever.

Acting quickly, Currier and the publisher of The New York Sun collaborated to produce an “extra” edition of the newspaper with an account of the event and an illustration based on early reports. Within three days of the disaster, the edition was distributed and Currier received national recognition for his “immediate” depiction of the event.

Firmly planted in journalistic endeavors of the day, Currier continued to illustrate current events. But his insight into the commercial market and what the public would purchase led him to produce a variety of prints, illustrating daily life, historical events and the activities of a changing nation.

Producing color images through the printing process was unknown. Chromolithography, pictures reproduced in color through the use of several printings, did not emerge in America until late in the 19th century. Illustrations in books, magazines and newspapers were in black and white except for a few books which had hand-colored illustrations – considered cost prohibitive to produce on a large scale. Currier improved the profitability of color printmaking by using assembly line methods for coloration.

Small folio prints were produced by a group of women employed by Currier in his shop. Using a model prepared by the artist and/or lithographer, each woman applied a single watercolor, then passed the print to the next, until the coloring was complete. Large folio prints were colored by more expert colorists where more time and care was used in applying the colors. Young, struggling artists of the day were often employed for the coloration of these larger folios.

The name of “N. Currier” was carried on all prints up until 1857 when James Merritt Ives became a partner in the firm. Ives had joined Currier five years earlier as a bookkeeper, but had shown such enthusiasm and knowledge of art that his role in the firm expanded rapidly.

His knowledge of art lent a new perspective to the firm’s ability to evaluate and select sketches for reproduction and his skills as a lithographer often carried him into the process to work on stones himself.

Currier & Ives became undoubtedly the most prolific firm of lithographers, producing more prints than all other firms combined during their time. Collectively, the prints today provide practically the only source, and certainly the largest, of colored pictures illustrating every phase of American life and history of their period.

From the snow-covered scenes of country life to the conquests and defeats of Civil War, and through the detailed chronicles of the pioneering “iron horse,” the list of subjects portrayed in Currier & Ives prints seems endless. Fond of horses and sports, Currier sought and produced some of the best hunting, racing and other sporting scenes. His influence and attitudes can also be recognized in many of the political and temperance cartoons produced by the firm.

Ives, on the other hand, had knowledge and true appreciation of art which probably influenced the firm to produced some of the more well-known artists’ works of the day. Ives was recognized in artistic circles outside the firm and served on many artistic committees and boards.

Perhaps the more sentimental side of the Currier & Ives collection can be attributed to his influence. He has been described by many historians as a family man who enjoyed a tranquil home life and took an active part in civic work.

Currier & Ives employed or used the work of many of the celebrated artists of the day including Louis Maurer, A.F. Tait, George Durrie, George Catlin, Eastman Johnson and many more. Perhaps one of the most often seen credits on Currier & Ives prints is that of F.F. Palmer, an artist whose work might never have stood the test of time or been seen by so many, if it were not for the firm.

During an age where women did not generally work for a living, Frances Flora Palmer supported a large family. Born in England, Palmer and her husband Edward moved to New York, along with their two children and Mrs. Palmer’s sister and brother. Although the exact date of their arrival to America is unknown, they seem to have come from a background of some wealth which was no longer the case upon their arrival in America. The sisters and Mrs. Palmer’s brother-in-law were well educated in art, literature and music and all three worked to some degree in the arts. Edward Palmer pursued no trade apparently and Mrs. Palmer was the primary breadwinner of the group.

There are no accurate records to determine the exact number of Currier & Ives prints to which Fanny Palmer contributed, but she is said to have contributed more than any other single artist. Best known for her talents to paint background and scenery, she often worked in conjunction with other artists. However, she proved versatile in her own work through various subjects including detailed sketches of steamboats on the Mississippi, railroad prints and excellent hunting and wildlife scenes.

Palmer worked for Currier & Ives until her death in 1876 at the age of 64. Although not recognized as an equal to some of the more distinguished Currier & Ives artists, her work offered great charm, comfort and attention to detail.

The charm of rural life was also the theme of George Henry Durrie paintings which remain some of the most popular Currier & Ives reproductions. The firm reproduced only a few of Durrie’s paintings, most of which serve as records of the old days on New England farms.

Sentimental yearnings and simple beauty may have been the call for many Currier & Ives works, however the events of the day more often served as the pinnacle of the many prints. Realistic portrayals of the move west served as a repeated theme throughout the history of the firm. By oxen-drawn wagons, ships or trains, the westward movement, and what these pioneers encountered, was recorded time and again by Currier & Ives artists.

Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait provided some of the most memorable scenes of western life in the Currier & Ives series, Life on the Prairie. A collaborative work with Louis Maurer, a recognized artist and longtime lithographer employed by Currier & Ives, theses scenes of the West were some of the most sought after prints ever produced by the firm. It has been documented by Currier & Ives historian, Harry T. Peters, that neither Tait nor Maurer had any firsthand knowledge of the Indian subjects they painted in the series. Neither had the thousands of American and Europeans who enthusiastically purchased these prints, seeking first glimpses of this new western frontier.

However, Tait and Maurer were influenced by firsthand accounts brought back by frontier pioneers and by other western painters such as George Catlin, Currier & Ives reproduced several of Catlin’s paintings, in addition to may other western artists.

The sea and ships played an important role in the development of the new world and served an equal place in the importance by way of Currier & Ives prints. The Age of the Clipper Ship and the Golden Age of Sail served as expanded subjects for Currier & Ives artists. Equally important to recording the development of America on the waterfront were the steamships and the handsome group of prints produced by the firm of the early epic days on the Mississippi.

Later the railroad, whistles screaming and wheels flashing, to some degree surpassed the ships as subjects and perfectly fit the Currier & Ives pattern for recording history in the making.

Poetry and other works of literature served as important themes, particularly in the eyes of Currier himself. Long established in the field of journalism, Currier was said to have been acquainted with several writers, poets and journalists of the day. Many ideas for the firm’s prints may have been formed during visits to the area newspaper offices for which he was often known to frequent or during chats with his literary friends.

Currier & Ives prints covered almost every subject of the day. Perhaps no era of history has been more fortunate in its portrayers. Currier & Ives pictured their own times with meticulous accuracy and detail, leaving behind to posterity a graphic record. The firm provided the public with pictures that were easy to understand and appreciate, typically American. They provided methods of production and distribution that were decades ahead of their time and the public responded. During their prime days of production, Currier & Ives prints adorned the walls of almost every public establishment, as well as the homes of the rich and the less fortunate.

Currier retired from the firm in 1880 after 55 years of working in the business. He died just eight years later. Ives remained an active member of the firm until his death in 1894. Currier was succeeded by his only surviving son, Edward, and Ive’s role in the firm was assumed by his son, Chauncey.

But the times were still changing and the lithograph print as produced by the firm was being pushed aside to make way for more advanced reproduction methods. In 1907 the firm was liquidated and all the lithographic stones were destroyed.

Currier & Ives left behind records of the romance, charm and quaintness of a lifestyle now past; the excitement and exuberance of discovery and adventure, and most importantly, history as seen through the craftsmen and artists of their time.


Selected Bibliography:

Harry, T. Peters, Curriers & Ives, Printmakers to the American People, Doubleday, Doran & Co., Inc., 1942.

Craig McClain, Currier & Ives, An Illustrated Value Guide, Wallace-Homestead, 1987.

Russell Crouse, Mr. Currier and Mr. Ives, Doubleday, Doran & Co., Inc., 1930.