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Enduring Appeal of Currier & Ives Prints
by Bob Brooke
no other medium preserved life as it was in the 19th century
as did the faithful and colorful prints of Currier and Ives.
From 1834 till 1907, their lithography shop produced in excess
of one million prints of American scenes, which included more
than 7500 different titles. They not only sold them successfully
in great numbers to the public, but left behind fond images
that are highly collectible today.
American middle class became the firm's primary audience.
Their prints stressed the wholesome things like "ships
and trains, animals,, architecture, current and historical
events, and particularly outdoor scenes.
1833, 20-year-old Nathaniel Currier, now an accomplished lithographer,
moved from Boston to Philadelphia to do contract work for
M.E.D. Brown, a noted engraver and printer. Brown hired Currier
to prepare lithographic stones of scientific images for the
American Journal of Sciences and Arts. After completing the
contract work in 1834, Currier traveled to New York City to
work once again for his mentor John Pendleton, who was now
operating his own shop located at 137 Broadway. Soon after
the reunion, Pendleton expressed an interest in returning
to Boston and offered to sell his print shop to Currier. Currier
didn't have the resources to buy the shop, but he found another
local printer by the name of Stodart and together they bought
firm 'Currier & Stodart' specialized in "job"
printing. They produced many different types of printed items,
most notably music manuscripts for local publishers. By 1835,
Stodart was frustrated that the business wasn't making enough
money and he ended the partnership, taking his investment
with him. With little more than some lithographic stones,
and a talent for his trade, Currier set up shop in a temporary
office at 1 Wall Street.
continued as a job printer and duplicated everything from
music sheets to architectural plans. He experimented with
portraits, disaster scenes and memorial prints, and anything
that he could sell to the public from tables in front of his
shop. During 1835 he produced a disaster print, "Ruins
of the Planter's Hotel, New Orleans, which fell at two O'clock
on the Morning of the 15th of May 1835, burying 50 persons,
40 of whom Escaped with their Lives." The public had
a thirst for newsworthy events, and since newspapers of the
time didn't include pictures, Currier gave the public a new
way to "see" the news.
1840, Currier produced a print called the "Awful Conflagration
of the Steamboat Lexington in Long Island Sound on Monday
Evening, January 18, 1840, by which melancholy occurrence
over One Hundred Persons Perished," which sold out quickly.
success of the Lexington print launched his career nationally.
In 1841, he hired his 21-year- old brother Charles and taught
him the lithography trade. He also hired his artistically
inclined brother, Lorenzo, to travel west and make sketches
of the new frontier as material for future prints. Charles
worked for the firm on and off over the years, and invented
a new type of lithographic crayon which he patented and named
met James Ives through his brother Charles' wife's sister
and hired him on as bookkeeper.
Ives quickly set out to improve and modernize Currier's bookkeeping
methods. He reorganized the firm's sizable inventory, and
used his artistic skills to streamline the firm's production
methods. By 1857, Currier had become so dependent on Ives'
skills and initiative that he offered him a full partnership
in the firm and appointed him general manager. The two men
chose the name 'Currier & Ives' for the new partnership,
and became close friends.
advertised colored engravings for the People," at their
shop on Nassau Street and sold their larger and better ones
for $1 to $3 each. They wholesaled smaller prints to peddlers
and other outlets for as little as six to 12 cents each. Over
the years the print sizes varied from just under 3 x 5 five
inches to 18 x 27 inches and larger. Topics could be as mundane
as fruits and flowers or as current as the Civil War.
could select prints from large bins that lined the inside
walls of their store. Part of the their great appeal of Currier
and Ives prints in the second half of the 19th-century was
their coloring. Typically, talented artists prepared original
drawings, which others then transferred to stone lithographs.
Additional workers finally hand-colored the prints.
and Ives paid artists $1 to $10 for their drawings, but they
seldom identified the artists on the prints, themselves. Exceptions
were the legendary Thomas Nast, George Henry Durrie, who specialized
in travel and sporting scenes, and Francis Flora Palmer. F.
F. Palmer came to the United States from England in 1840 and
became one of Currier and Ives' most prolific artists. During
her first year she turned out 12 full renderings, and between
1860 and 1868, she was credited with more than 100 lithographs,
including "Sleepy Hollow Church," " The Village
Blacksmith," "Early Winter," "The Rocky
Mountains," and "Wooding Up on the Mississippi."
& Ives produced their prints in a building at 33 Spruce
Street in Philadelphia where they occupied the third, fourth
and fifth floors. Hand-operated printing presses occupied
the third floor. The fourth floor found the artists, lithographers
and the stone grinders at work. The fifth floor housed the
coloring department. The colorists, mostly German immigrant
girls, came to America with some formal artistic training.
Currier & Ives paid these colorists $1 per 100 small folios
(a penny a print) and $1 per one dozen large folios. Each
colorist added a single color to a print. As a colorist finished
applying their color, she passed the print down the line to
the next colorist to add their color. The colorists worked
from a master print displayed above their table, which showed
where to place the proper colors. A touch-up artists sat at
the end of the table, checking the prints for quality and
touching-in areas that may have been missed as the print passed
down the line. During the Civil War, demand for prints became
so great that Currier and Ives developed coloring stencils
to speed up production.
basic routine never varied although the topics would range
from "Trolling for Blue Fish" to the "Kiss
Me Quick" romance of a young couple. And the combination
1872 the Currier and Ives catalog proudly proclaimed:"...
our Prints have become a staple article... in great demand
in every part of the country... In fact without exception,
all that we have published have met with a quick and ready
finally retired in 1880, and Ives ran the business until his
death in 1895.
an avid collector of a variety of antiques and collectibles
for the last 20 years, Bob Brooke knows what he's writing
about. Beginning with one modest English writing box, he's
developed a variety of collections. Besides writing about
antiques, specializing in furniture, Brooke has also sold
at flea markets and worked in an antique shop, so he knows
the business side, too. He's a regular feature writer for
AntiqueWeek, and also writes for a number of other publications
and Web sites, including British Heritage, Southeastern Antiquing
and Collecting Magazine, OldandSold.com, and many others.
URLs: The Antiques Almanac - www.theantiquesalmanac.com
Writing at Its Best - www.bobbrooke.com