Currier and Ives
NATHANIAL CURRIER, American (1813-1888) JAMES IVES, American (1824-1895)
One of the most prolific and successful printmaking firms in history, Currier and Ives publishing company through their lithographs made art accessible to middle class America. From 1834 until 1907, what started as a small lithography shop produced over one million prints of more than 7,500 captivating titles depicting phases of everyday American life, all with enormous mass appeal. The firm was so successful that its owners called it the "Grand Central Depot for Cheap and Popular Prints" and advertised its catalogue as "colored engravings for the people." . The prints remain even more valuable and collectible today.
In 1833, Nathanial Currier was, at only 20 years of age, an established lithographer in greater Boston on his way to Philadelphia to assist M.E.D. Brown, a well-known engraver, in preparing lithographic stones of scientific images for the American Journal of Sciences and Arts. Upon completion, Currier headed for New York City to work for his former teacher and mentor, John Pendleton, who ran his own successful print shop in the city. Currier's earliest prints were actually issued under the name "Currier & Stodart," reflecting a short-lived partnership with a local printer with whom he bought Pendleton's shop. Currier & Stodart specialized in "job" printing, producing a variety of printed items with an emphasis on music manuscripts; however, the company consistently lacked an adequate financial return. Stodart ended the partnership, leaving Currier to open a small one-man shop on Wall Street.
Still a job printer, Currier began duplicating everything from sheet music to architectural plans. Before long, he ventured into portraits, memorial prints, and perhaps most importantly, disaster scenes. In 1835, he produced the pivotal 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 print tapped the public's interest in current events by filling the visual void left by newspapers of the day. Currier later published a print called "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 and further catapulted Currier's career to a national level. He quickly hired his younger brothers, Charles and Lorenzo, with Charles assisting in lithography and Lorenzo traveling west to cull images for future prints.
Currier & Ives became an entity in 1857, when Currier offered his friend and bookkeeper, James Ives, a partnership in his company. First introduced to Ives through Charles' wife, the financial wizard modernized Currier's bookkeeping methods, reorganized inventory and streamlined production, allowing for the company's significant expansion. Print sizes became more varied, and subjects broadened to include everything from sleigh rides, sporting events and landscapes to political satire and historical turning points such as the Civil War.
The Currier & Ives process began with an artist's original drawing which was then transferred to stone lithographs. Prints were produced in black and white, then carefully and intricately hand-colored, introducing the company's signature coloring style. Each colorist on staff added only one color to the print, working off a master print on display, and touch-up artists approved the final product. Even as demand greatly increased, this established and highly successful method never wavered, ensuring that each print's quality and visual appeal was never compromised.
In 1872, the Currier & Ives catalogue stated, "... 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; Ives ran the business until his death in 1895. In 1907.