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The best collector is an educated one. The Educated Collector will feature information about antique and collectible objects to help collectors learn more about what they collect. Each column will give a brief history of a particular type of antique or collectible, known makers, and something about the market for it.

The Enduring Appeal of Currier & Ives Prints
by Bob Brooke

Probably 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.

The 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.

In 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 Pendleton's business.

The 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.

Currier 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.

In 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.

The 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 the Crayola.

Currier 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.

They 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.

Customers 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.

Currier 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."

Currier & 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.

The 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 seldom failed.

In 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 sale."

Currier finally retired in 1880, and Ives ran the business until his death in 1895.

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As 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.

Author: Bob Brooke
URLs: The Antiques Almanac - www.theantiquesalmanac.com
Writing at Its Best - www.bobbrooke.com

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