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( Originally Published 1951 )
Currier & Ives prints of contemporary events and scenes in the second half of the Nineteenth Century have long had historic, aesthetic and commercial value. The more than seven thousand prints published by this firm constitute the richest and most complete pictorial record in color of practically every phase of our national life. Here are recorded our customs, culture, interests, social activities, industrial progress.
Social and political satire, humor and tragedy, the pleasures of the home and countryside-all are depicted in these colorful prints. Always interesting, even when naively executed, they enjoy today a popularity never before known among collectors and art lovers.
In 1828, when Nathaniel Currier was fifteen years old, he was apprenticed to William and John Pendleton of Boston. Lithography, the art of drawing on stone, had been invented in the latter part of the Eighteenth Century by Alois Senefelder, and the Pendletons were one of the first concerns in this country to use the new method of printing. Currier remained with this firm for five years, after which he worked for one year for M. E. D. Brown of Philadelphia. He then came to New York and formed a partnership with a man named Stodart.
Very little is known of Stodart. He may have been the William Stodart listed in the New York City Directory, who had a music store at 167 Broadway from 1831 to 1834. Much of Pendleton's work was done for music publishers during Currier's apprenticeship, and it is reasonable to assume that he made Stodart's acquaintance during this period and saw the possibilities of doing this type of work for himself. During his association with Stodart he continued to work for music publishers, but this venture was not successful and was shortlived. During their brief partnership, however, they published at least one important print-Dartmouth College.
In 1835 Nathaniel Currier went into business for himself. He had two small hand presses at No. 1 Wall Street and continued to work for book, music and other print publishersparticularly J. H. Bufford and J. Disturnell. His prints at this time were marked either "N. Currier's Lith." or "Currier's Lith. 1 Wall Street." According to the city directories, Currier was located at 1 Wall Street in 1835 and 1836; at 148 Nassau Street from 1836 to 1838; at 2 Spruce Street from 1838 to 1846; at 2 and 33 Spruce Street in 1847; at 152 Nassau Street from 1848 to 1871; at 123 and 125 Nassau Street from 1872 to 1875; at 115 Nassau Street from 1876 to 1886; and at 108 Fulton Street until 1907. The workroom, however, remained at 33 Spruce Street until the firm went out of business in 1907. Only copyrighted Currier prints are dated, and so the various addresses on the undated prints provide a means by which the approximate date of publication of the prints may be determined.
The address of 148 Nassau Street is apparently a typographical error, since no one to my knowledge has ever found a Currier print so marked. On the other hand, there are at least a dozen prints marked 169 Broadway and 2 Spruce Street, although this Broadway address does not appear in any of the directories. Currier was located at 169 Broadway in 1842, but it is not known how long this address was used or why.
Charles Currier, a brother of Nathaniel, makes his first appearance in the directory of 1845-6. He is listed as a lithographer located at 33 Spruce Street at the same time N. Currier was listed at 2 Spruce Street. In the directory of the following year the address of both is given as 33 Spruce Street. If this information is correct, Charles started independently and joined up with his brother one year later.
Charles Currier did lithographic work under his own name, and in 1862 he describes himself as "Charles Currier, Lithographer-Portraits, views of cities, towns and buildings, book illustrations, maps and circulars, show cards in colors, music titles, bill heads, etc., executed in the finest style of the art, also manufacturer of lithographic crayons superior to any others." The sale of these crayons must have been a profitable enterprise as he published fewer than 100 subjects in his entire career, an average of less than three a year. Many of the subjects published by him had the same titles as, and the composition closely approximated the work of, the Currier & Ives prints. His most important subject was the large folio The Bark Theoxena, and the next is Johnson's Hotel, Warren Street, N. Y., the Hague Street Explosion and several large fashion prints for Butterick & Co. He also published Government House; Home o f Washington-Mt. Vernon; Madison, The Capitol of Wisconsin; The Old Tennant Parsonage; Permanent Fair Grounds o f the Queens County Agricultural Society /Mineola, L. L; A View o f the Federal Hall o f the City o f New York; View of Maueh Chunk, and View of West Point.
James Merritt Ives was introduced to Nathaniel by his brother Charles, and he was hired as a bookkeeper in 1852. He was listed as a publisher located at 152 Nassau Street for several years before he was taken into partnership with Currier in 1857. Ives contributed some of the art work for the firm and all prints published after 1857 were marked "Currier & Ives." His name appears on the following important prints: Across the Continent/Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way, Haying Time/The First Load, Haying Time/The Last Load, and the popular set of The Four Seasons of Life.
Early in his career Currier recognized the universal interest people have in fires, explosions, wrecks and disasters. In his collaboration with Bufford and Disturnell he produced the prints The Ruins o f the Planters Hotel, New Orleans; Ruins o f the Merchant's Exchange; and View o f the Great Conflagration of Dec. 16th and 17th, 1835. He gradually cut down the amount of job printing he did for other publishers and increased the number of prints he lithographed and marketed for himself.
In 1837 he published the print Dreadful Wreck of the Mexico on Hempstead Beach, Jany. 2nd, 1837; as now exhibiting at/Hanington's Dioramas. Dioramas were the newsreel theaters of the day. Enlarged and colored scenes of interest were shown on a translucent screen arranged on a roll in a scaffold so they could be shown one at a time by the turn of a crank. Lights were placed in the rear, illuminating the picture while a speaker carried on a running commentary. This was the first print by Currier published at the Sun office by B. H. Day, whose son, Ben Day, was associated for many years with Currier and drew numerous subjects which were reproduced by him. It is ironic that Day invented the shading screen and other improvements used in the photoengraving business, which were partially responsible for the decline of the hand drawn lithograph.
In 1840 Currier achieved national renown almost overnight. On January 13, 1840, the steamboat Lexington, advertised as the best equipped and built steamship afloat, left from New York for Stonington, Connecticut. The Lexington had just been altered to permit the use of coal instead of wood, and this was her first voyage since the installation of the new equipment. In fact, this was the first trip for any American steamship using coal as fuel, and the owners had taken full advantage of the publicity to make the event a gala occasion. Everything seemed favorable when she started on her voyage, and the celebration on board extended into the night. Off Eaton's Neck in Long Island Sound, fire suddenly broke out and flames almost completely enveloped the ship. The hemp tiller lines evidently burned and it was impossible to beach her. The lifeboats capsized on launching, precipitating many of the passengers into the icy waters. Of the 87 passengers and crew of 40, all but 4 were either drowned or burned to death.
The communication facilities of the country were so primitive at the time, especially in winter, that news of the disaster did not reach the city until Wednesday morning. Moses Beach, the new owner of the Sun, immediately got in touch with Currier and asked him to provide an illustration of the tragedy. Currier commissioned W. K. Hewitt to make a sketch of the disaster, and within three days, an unheard-of speed at that time, a lithograph entitled Awful Conflagration o f the Steam Boat Lexington in Long Island Sound on Monday/Eve'g Jan. 13th, 1840 appeared, showing the burning vessel with passengers lining the rails and others in the water perched on bales of cotton. Under the picture there was a map showing the exact location of the disaster and seven columns of description. The print was headed The Extra Sun.
It is not known how many copies of the print were sold. It was printed on a drum press with a capacity of less than 1,000 copies per hour, and the presses ran night and day to supply the demand. Copies were sold in other cities and Currier became famous. He later altered the print, retaining the picture and map and substituting two columns of testimony by Captain Hilliard, a passenger and not the captain of the ship.
The sales possibilities of timely news pictures which could be offered for sale within a few days of the actual event were not lost on Currier. A look at the copyright records indicates that Currier's business increased tremendously in the following years. By 1846 one hundred and fifty prints had been copyrighted by him. This total does not represent the total output of the firm as many of the prints were not copyrighted.
He had little competition at this time, since the combined production of the other small lithographers did not equal Currier's. Shortly after the publication of the Lexington print, pushcart peddlers made regular stops at the store to make selections of prints, paying cash for those selected and returning at night with the unsold balance for which they received a refund. Apparently these sales were considerable, because Currier distributed sales letters addressed particularly to peddlers and traveling agents which announced: "These prints offer great inducements as they are so easily handled and carried, do not require a large outlay of money to stock up with, and offer a handsomer profit than almost any article they can deal in, while at the same time Pictures have become a necessity, and the price at which they can be retailed is so low that everybody can afford to buy them."
Millions were sold, and a clue to the extent of the sales is provided by a remark made by Daniel Logan, the sales manager of the firm, to Thomas Worth. Logan told Worth to ask for more money for his drawings since more than 70,000 copies of one of his llarktown subjects had been sold.
Currier also took advantage of the fact that additional revenue could be obtained from advertisers, and a large proportion of the prints he published were issued with this in mind. The large folio print entitled American Express Train, published in 1855, was changed to include the lettering The Adams Express Co. across the sky; the baggage car was also lettered and three lines of wording substituted for the original title. Another railroad print, The Danger Signal, was relettered and used as an "ad" by the United States Mutual Accident Association. Still another important print, American Railroad Scene/Lightning Express Trains Leaving the Junction, was changed to American Railway Scene at Hornellsville, Erie Railway. Several of the large bird's-eye views of New York emphasized the location of the Equitable Life Assurance Society, and many of the larger prints were reissued in postcard size and used as store cards by various concerns. Many subjects were drawn on speculation with the idea of an advertiser in mind, but they weren't all sold. This policy was adhered to during the entire life of the concern.
In all his sales letters and order lists, Currier emphasized that all transactions were for cash. But according to a bill in his own handwriting which he presented to Alexander J. Davis, a New York architect for whom he did considerable work, he listed numerous items sold to Davis from 1835 to 1843 totaling $182.40 and acknowledging "Credits by cash at sundry times of $135.00 leaving a balance of $47.40." A memorandum accompanies the bill as follows: "Dear Sir: In addition to the above is a bill of work delivered Rev. C. Colton which was executed wholly by your order and charged to you at the time of delivery and for which I think you are morally holden. The amount is $72.29 which makes the balance really due $119.69 with interest. Respectfully Yours, Nathaniel Currier."
This bill provides information regarding wholesale and other charges for his work. One item dated 1838 is for printing 500 copies of the print Design for a Model School House for $5.00; other items were charged for at the rate of one and a half cents each, two cents each, three cents each, and four cents each. Another item is for six copies of Ravenswood at $3.00. This print, entitled Ravenswood/Long Island near Hallets Cove, is 11.4 by 50 inches long, and the charge is fifty cents each. This is the only record I have ever seen of a wholesale price for a large folio print. Another item worthy of note is one for sizing 800 prints at a cost of $4.00. To the best of my knowledge it wasn't known that Currier sized his prints prior to coloring. A final item is for 133 pounds of lithographic stone for $16.62, which amounts to twelve and one half cents per pound.