(27 March 1813 - 20 November 1888)
(5 March 1824 - 3 January 1895)
Currier and Ives was a successful American printmaking firm headed by Nathaniel Currier (1813-1888) and James Merritt Ives (1824-1895). Based in New York City from 1834-1907, the prolific firm produced prints from paintings by fine artists as black and white lithographs that were hand colored. Lithographic prints could be reproduced quickly and purchased inexpensively, and the firm called itself "the Grand Central Depot for Cheap and Popular Prints" and advertised its lithographs as "colored engravings for the people."
Currier's Early History
Nathaniel Currier was born in Roxbury, Massachusetts on March 27, 1813, the second of four children. His parents, Nathaniel and Hannah Currier, were distant cousins who lived a humble and spartan life. When Nathaniel was eight years old, tragedy struck. Nathaniel's father unexpectedly died leaving Nathaniel and his eleven-year-old brother Lorenzo to provide for the family. In addition to their mother, Nathaniel and Lorenzo had to care for six-year-old sister Elizabeth and two-year-old brother Charles. Nathaniel worked a series of odd jobs to support the family, and at fifteen, he started what would become a lifelong career when he apprenticed in the Boston lithography shop of William and John Pendleton. In 1833, at twenty years of age, he moved to Philadelphia to do contract work for M. E. D. Brown, a noted engraver and printer. Currier's early lithographs were issued under the name of Stodart & Currier, a result of the partnership he created in 1834, with a local New York printmaker named Stodart. The two men specialized in "job" printing and made a variety of print products, including music manuscripts. Dissatisfied with the poor economic return of their business venture, Currier ended the partnership in 1835, and set up shop alone, working as "N. Currier, Lithographer" until 1856. In 1835, he created a lithograph that illustrated a fire sweeping through New York City's business district. The print of the Merchant's Exchange sold thousands of copies in four days. Realizing that there was a market for current news, Currier turned out several more disaster prints and other inexpensive lithographs that illustrated local and national events, such as "Ruins of the Planter's Hotel, New Orleans, which fell at two O’clock on the Morning of May 15, 1835, burying 50 persons, 40 of whom Escaped with their Lives." He quickly gained a reputation as an accomplished lithographer.
In 1840, he produced "Awful Conflagration of the Steam Boat Lexington", which was so successful that he was given a weekly insert in New York Sun. In this year, Currier's firm began to shift its focus from job printing to independent print publishing.
The Partnership with Ives:
The name Currier & Ives first appeared in 1857, when Currier invited James Merritt Ives (1824-1895), the company's bookkeeper and accountant, to become his partner. James Merritt Ives, who was born on March 5, 1824 in New York City, married Caroline Clark in 1852. She was the sister-in-law of Nathaniel's brother, Charles Currier, and it was Charles who recommended James Ives to his brother. Nathaniel Currier soon noticed Ives's dedication to his business and his artistic knowledge and insight into what the public wanted. The younger man quickly became the general manager of the firm, handling the financial side of the business by modernizing the bookkeeping, reorganizing inventory, and streamlining the print process. Ives also helped Currier interview potential artists and craftsmen. The younger man had a flair for gauging popular interests and aided in selecting the images the firm would publish and expanding the firm's range to include political satire, and sentimental scenes such as sleigh rides in the country and steamboat races. In 1857, Currier made Ives a full partner.
The firm Currier and Ives described itself as Publishers of Cheap and Popular Prints. At least 7,500 lithographs were published in the firm's 72 years of operation. Artists produced two to three new images every week for 64 years (1834-1895), producing more than a million prints by hand-colored lithography. For the original drawings, Currier & Ives employed or used the work of many celebrated artists of the day including:
All lithographs were produced on lithographic limestone printing plates on which the drawing was done by hand. A stone often took over a week to prepare for printing. Each print was pulled by hand. Prints were hand-colored by a dozen or more women, often immigrants from Germany with an art background, who worked in assembly-line fashion, one color to a worker, and who were paid $6 for every 100 colored prints. The favored colors were clear and simple, and the drawing was bold and direct.
The earliest lithographs were printed in black and then colored by hand. As new techniques were developed, publishers began to produce full-color lithographs that gradually developed softer, more painterly effects. Skilled artist lithographers like John Cameron, Fanny Palmer and others represented in the show became known for their work and signed important pieces. Artists like Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait (1819-1905), became famous when their paintings were reproduced as lithographs.
Currier and Ives was the most prolific and successful company of lithographers in the U.S. Its lithographs represented every phase of American life, and included the themes of hunting, fishing, whaling, city life, rural scenes, historical scenes, clipper ships, yachts, steamships, the Mississippi River, Hudson River scenes, railroads, politics, comedy, gold mining, winter scenes, commentary on life, portraits, and still lifes. From 1866, the firm occupied three floors in a building at 33 Spruce Street in New York: Hand-operated printing presses occupied the third floor. Artists, stone grinders, and lithographers worked on the fourth floor. Colorists worked on the fifth floor.
Small works sold for from five to twenty cents each and large works sold for $1 to $3 a piece. The Currier and Ives firm branched out from its central shop in New York City to sell prints via pushcart vendors, peddlers and book stores. The firm sold retail as well as wholesale, establishing outlets in cities across the country and in London. It also sold work through the mail (prepaid orders only), and internationally through a London office and agents in Europe.
The 19th-century Victorian public, with its interest in current events and sentimental taste, was receptive to the firm's products. Currier and Ives prints were among the most popular wall hangings of the day. 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 amp; Ives prints were among the household decorations considered appropriate for a proper home by Catharine Esther Beecher (1800-1878), and by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896), authors of American Woman's Home (1869): "The great value of pictures for the home would be, after all, in their sentiment. They should express the sincere ideas and tastes of the household and not the tyrannical dicta of some art critic or neighbor."
Currier died in 1888. Ives remained active in the firm until his death in 1895. Both Currier's and Ives's sons followed their fathers in the business, which was eventually liquidated in 1907. Because of improvements in offset printing and photoengraving, the public demand for lithographs had gradually diminished.
The prints depicted a variety of images of American life, including winter scenes; horse-racing images; portraits of people; and pictures of ships, sporting events, patriotic and historical events, including ferocious battles of the American Civil War, the building of cities and railroads, and Lincoln's assassination.
The original lithographs shared similar characteristics in inking and paper, and adhered to folio sizes. Sizes of the images were standard (trade cards, very small folios, small folios, medium folios, large folios), and their measurement did not include the title or borders. These sizes are one of the guides for collectors today in determining if the print is an original or not. "Currier used a cotton based, medium to heavy weight paper depending on the folio size for his prints until the late 1860s. From about 1870, Currier & Ives used paper mixed with a small amount of wood pulp." In addition, Currier's inking process resembled a mixture of elongated splotches and dashes of ink with a few spots, a characteristic that modern reproductions would not possess.
In 1907, when the firm was liquidated most of the lithographic stones had the image removed and were sold by the pound with some stones final home as land fill in Central Park. Those few stones that managed to survive intact were of large folio Clipper Ships, small folio Dark Town Comics, a medium folio "Abraham Lincoln" and a small folio "Washington As A Mason".
Nathaniel Currier, (March 27, 1813-November 20, 1888), born in Roxbury, Mass., was apprenticed in his teens to a Boston lithographic firm. He established his own lithography business in New York City in 1835. The lithographer James Merritt Ives, born in New York City, (March 5, 1824 – January 3, 1895), entered into partnership with Currier in 1857. Currier retired in 1888, Ives a few years later; but the firm was carried on by their sons and flourished until 1907.
Lithography had begun in America in the 1820s. It was quicker and less expensive than engraving, hence the remarkable success of the firm of Currier and Ives. Soon after setting up business they produced extensive folios, usually based on paintings. Some of the work was crude, but the quality varied considerably. The star artists of the firm were Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait, who specialized in sporting scenes; Louis Maurer, who executed genre scenes; George H. Durrie, who supplied winter scenes, and Fanny Palmer, who liked to do picturesque panoramas of the American landscape.
So well known did Currier and Ives become that it was common to refer to any large mixed batch of prints as Currier and Ives prints. The firm was astoundingly prolific and produced prints on practically every aspect of the American scene. In the 1870s, they issued four catalogs featuring 2800 subject titles.
Currier and Ives sometimes focused on current events. (In 1840, Currier produced what may have been the first illustrated "extra" in history when he depicted scenes of the fire that had broken out that year aboard the steamship Lexington in Long Island Sound.) Political cartoons and banners were commonly produced, like the Presidential Fishing Party of 1848, showing the candidates with fishing poles trying to hook fish on which names of various states are inscribed.
Historical prints were another field, and copies from the historical paintings of John Trumbull were especially popular. "he Civil War print 'Battle of Fair Oaks, Va., May 31, 1862", shows the first balloon ever used for warfare observation. Sentimental prints included one showing a married couple walking along a riverbank and another showing a girl taking care of her little sister. There were also prints for children, such as "Robinson Crusoe and His Pets" and "Noah's Ark"; country and pioneer home scenes, which included "Early Winter", a beautiful scene of people skating on a frozen pond before a snow-covered country cottage; and lithographed sheet music. Still other categories were Mississippi River prints, including "On the Mississippi Loading Cotton" and "Midnight Race on the Mississippi"; railroad prints that sometimes featured minute descriptions of trains, as in "Lightning Express" Trains Leaving the Junction; and home prints, which were produced in especially large quantities.
Currier and Ives avoided controversial subjects, although there was at least one print showing the branding of slaves prior to embarkation from Africa. Prints of sporting events focused on prize fights (like the 1835, match between John C. Heeman and the English champion Tom Sayers), boat races, and even, in the early stages of its development, baseball. As America expanded, so did the demand for Currier and Ives prints. Today they provide a vivid picture of daily life in 19th-century America.
References & External links:
High Water in the Mississippi, Fanny Palmer
Currier and Ives: Perspectives on America, American Public Television [aptonline.org]
View artist's work: Currier & Ives
View work: Nathaniel Currier (1813-1888)
View work: James Merritt Ives (1824-1895)