Each of us have, in our mind's eye, a visual image of what it was like to live a hundred or hundred and fifty years ago. Perhaps the most vivid of these come from movies, westerns such as Stagecoach, small period pieces like Little Women, or great epics like Gone with the Wind. Some of our images come from the genre paintings of the era, such as the work of Eastman Johnson. In some cases, crude photos of great events come to mind; all of which have served to illustrate the ponderous old American history books we all use to lug back and forth to class every day in high school. And if we still had those books, and peered into them once more, we might realise yet another type of imagery we've probably forgotten about, but which once made up a very great part of how American's saw themselves in the nineteenth century--the lithographic print. And at the top of that pictorial genre is the name, Currier and Ives.
In the 1800s, lithographic art was a relatively new thing. It was invented by the Bavarian artist, Alois Senefelder as late as 1798, employing smoothly ground, porous native limestone in a fairly complex printing process involving a grease pencil, water, and oil based inks. Colour was the work of apprentice artists, added transparently to each print by hand. It was 1825 before the cumbersome process found its way to this country as William and John Pendleton began a printing business in Boston using Senefelder's methods. It was there, around 1830, they hired an eighteen-year-old apprentice named Nathaniel Currier to help in the business. Around 1833, Currier left the firm to work with Philadelphia lithographer M.E.D. Brown, who produced printed scientific illustrations. Two years later, Currier moved to New York intending to work once more for John Pendleton who had opened an office there. Instead, he ended up buying the fledgling branch office and starting his own firm--N. Currier.
In the beginning, Currier produced sheet music, letterheads, and other stock in trade printed items, but two early lithographic editions, Ruins of the Planters Hotel and Ruins of the Merchant's Exchange N.Y. quickly underlined the marketing potential for pictures of current events, launching the new company in the direction it would take for the next seventy-five years. Currier capitalised on his ability to create depictions of newsworthy events (usually dramatic catastrophes) just days after their occurrence. In 1852, he hired James Merritt Ives as his head bookkeeper. Five years later, the books in order, and Ives' marketing savvy propelling the firm to new heights, he was made a full partner. Currier and Ives was born. Both men were competent, if not exceptional artists, outstanding lithographers, and shrewd businessmen. They also had a keen eye and gut feeling for that which the various levels of American society wanted hanging on their walls.
Whether nostalgic urban dwellers longing for their frontier roots, or Midwestern farmers yearning for depictions of urban sophistication, Currier and Ives' vast selection filled the bill. Their portfolio eventually grew to some 7,500 different images. And whether marketed through big city print shops, Sears and Roebuck catalogues, or country peddlers, this inexpensive form of art reproduction became practically synonymous with middle-class Victorian decor. Currier and Ives brought to life the work of artists as diverse as Frances Palmer, Arthur F. Tait, Louis Maurer, John Schutler, James Butterworth, Thomas Worth, and perhaps most memorably, the snowy, country homestead scenes of George H. Durrie, which we've all seen on Christmas cards invoking a simple, agrarian past steeped in sentimentality even when they were first printed in the 1860s.
Nathaniel Currier died in 1888, Ives in 1895. The firm passed to their sons who continued together until 1902 when the younger Currier sold out to the younger Ives who in turn liquidated much of the stock and sold the company to a Daniel W. Logan, in 1907. By that time, except in some areas of rural America, the Currier and Ives style and printing techniques had been supplanted by much more modern ones. Today, thanks to revivals of interest in the 1920s and 30s original Currier and Ives lithographs are much sought after by collectors and history buffs, kind of making them the baseball cards of the art world.