We recently added several Currier & Ives lithographs to our website. Among the lithographic companies, the printmaking firm of Currier & Ives produced some of the most iconic and popular American art of the 19th century. The company, headed by Nathaniel Currier (1813-1888) and James Merritt Ives (1824-1895), specialized in publishing hand colored lithographic prints that were sold inexpensively to the growing American middle class.
During its early years, the firm was primarily known for its commercial work- printing advertising, letterheads, music sheets, or other work that it was paid to produce. Nathaniel Currier was interested in being more than a commercial printing shop and was continuously looking for opportunities to sell images to the public. His first foray into selling directly to the public was creating images for newsworthy events. Almost all the newspapers before the late 1850’s were not illustrated. The enterprising Currier hired artists to created images for the sensational news stories of the time.
We do not know exactly when the firm started publishing images for sale to the public, but it is likely that it was fairly early on and probably met with limited success. His first copyrighted image was in 1838. (Commercial images do not need a copyright; however, images for sale to the public did need image protection, to prevent competitors from taking the image and publishing it themselves). It is also known that by the late 1840’s, the firm was aggressively marketing images to the public for sale as individual prints. By the 1850’s, the company’s influence and success created serious growth in the industry of lithography. Many large folio images were issued and the number of copyrights expanded considerably.
Prices for small folio hand colored lithographs were 20 cents each. The large folios ranged from $3 to $5 each. They were not limited edition publishers, so it is unknown how many impressions were produced of each print. In general, the firm did not make an image unless it felt that it could sell 100 impressions. Over time, their subject matter expanded to included genre scenes, town views, and many portraits. Sporting scenes, especially horse racing and fishing, also found their way onto the lithographic stones, and were very popular.
The firm of Currier & Ives closed permanently in 1907. During the last fifteen years the firm was not very productive, as tastes had changed and photography, which was invented in 1840, became easily printable by the turn of the century. America lost most of its lithographic houses between the years 1870 and 1910. Cheaper, faster commercial presses were replacing the age old hand-run lithographic presses. The new presses did not produce images of the same quality as hand printed lithographs, but the savings were more important than quality in commercial work.
Over the years, there has been a flurry of renewed interest in Currier & Ives lithographs. Many collectors recognize the importance of these images- as the offer a rare pictorial record of the life and activities of the mid 19th century. Capturing scenes of historical significance, including the civil war, as well as offering prints of true artistic merit, the Currier & Ives lithographs have an almost irresistible charm and appeal.