Currier and Ives
Before the widespread use of photography, there was a large market for artistic depictions of scenes and events. A process for making prints called lithography became popular in North America during the early nineteenth century. One young artist who mastered this technique was Nathaniel Currier (1813-1888). Currier opened his own shop in 1834. Currier’s success came when he issued prints of newsworthy events. His “Ruins of the Merchant’s Exchange” followed a great fire in New York, December 1834. One of Currier’s prints of a disastrous fire on a steamboat was published in the New York Sun in 1840. There was also a large market for decorative prints. People who couldn’t afford oil paintings would buy colour prints to put on their walls. Some of these prints were copies of paintings. Sometimes, Currier mentioned his source and sometimes not. In 1852, James Merritt Ives (1824-1895) joined Currier’s firm. In 1857, he became Currier’s partner. After that, the firm was known as Currier and Ives. Altogether the firm produced about 7,000 different subjects. Small prints sold for about 25 cents, and large colour prints for about three dollars. Travelling salesmen went from house to house selling them. Currier and Ives sometimes hired the original painters to make the print. More often, someone from his or her own studio either composed an original subject or copied an existing painting or drawing. Contemporary news remained popular. Currier and Ives prints included “The First Appearance of Jenny Lind in America” (1850), “The Fall of Richmond, Virginia” (1865), and “The Great Fire at Chicago” (1871). A common subject was a patriotic scene from American history. Interesting occupations such as whaling, bird hunting, trapping, fur trading and deep-sea fishing were portrayed. Pioneer and Indian topics were in demand. However, the most popular of all scenes were winter and holiday prints of ordinary people enjoying life. Farm scenes, buggy rides, sleigh rides, market scenes, blacksmith’s shops, and town scenes sold well. Favourite prints included “American Forest Scene: Maple Sugaring” (1860), “Home to Thanksgiving” (1863), “Winter in the Country” (1862), “Life in the Country: The Morning Ride” (1859) and “American Winter Sports” (1856). These scenes are still popular. Even today you can buy Christmas cards with Currier and Ives winter scenes. This collection of prints gives a remarkable picture of America between 1834 and 1907. Although the prints are sometimes more romantic than reality, they give a lot of information about everyday life. They depict styles of clothing, trains and boats, buildings and bridges and popular activities. They also tell us what sorts of scenes people at that time liked, and what their artistic tastes were. Eventually, advances in photography made this kind of printmaking obsolete. In 1906, the firm of Currier and Ives closed its doors. For a while, these prints were not considered very valuable. Nowadays, however, there are many collectors, and Currier and Ives prints once again can be found decorating North American homes.