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The method employed by Currier in preparing a stone for printing was first to cut the stone to the required size, slightly larger than the over-all size of the print to be reproduced and of several inches thickness. Both sides had to be absolutely level, and the front and back strictly parallel.
The surface upon which the drawing was to be made was carefully ground with either finely ground sand or glass by revolving a stone muller slightly smaller than the stone to be polished. This was continued until the stone was perfectly smooth.
The drawing was then made in reverse on the stone, with greasy crayons. When completed, the stone was subjected to a bath of gum arabic and nitric acid. This solution etched or attacked the portions of the stone untouched by the crayon, leaving the drawing itself in slight relief. When the stone was thoroughly washed to stop the action of the acid, it was ready for printing. The stone was then put in the press, wetted thoroughly, and a special lithographic ink applied with a roller. The ink adhered to the drawing on the stone but was repelled by the untouched portions. A sheet of paper was then placed on the stone, pressure was applied, and the print "pulled" or taken from the press.
If the print was sold uncolored, it was ready for sale. If coloring was necessary it was sent to the colorist. When the first copy had been colored by one of the more expert colorists and approved, it was used as a color guide or master print for the corps of girls who even then used our present-day assembly line methods. Each girl seated at a long table would apply a single color, then pass the print to the next girl who would apply another color, and so on until the coloring was completed. One of the characteristics of these small folio prints is the fact that the colors sometimes run over the borders allotted to them. This is not surprising, since these prints were sold wholesale for $6.00 per hundred or any part of a hundred, and very little time could be spent on an item selling for six cents if Mr. Currier was to make a profit. Another identifying feature of these prints is the absence of tints and of the finer gradations to be found on the large folios. The large folios were handled in a different manner. Many were sent to outside artists; more care was used in applying the colors, and tempera or opaque colors were used to accentuate highlights and conspicuous details.
It is not true, as many people think, that all Currier prints were colored entirely by hand. Many of the large folio prints were printed partially in color even during the early days of the firm. The first print I can recall having seen, printed in color, is The Celebrated Trotting Horse Trustee, published in 1848. I own a number of prints in which only the sky and foreground are printed in color and have seen many others. The balance of the coloring was applied by hand. This was common practice in Europe where many fine prints were being made, and Currier, who was ahead of his time, took advantage of every innovation which would enable him to turn out the best possible work. The smallsized prints, however, were all colored entirely by hand until the later days of the firm, when all their prints, large and small, were printed entirely in color.
Accurate registration of colors was secured by pricking the stones with a pair of needles at a particular part of the composition on each side. Then a pair of holes were punched in the corresponding portions of the print, and the print placed over the needles for each separate color printing. If some of the large folio prints are held up to a strong light a hole will be found on each side of the print at a definite part of the composition. If two prints of the same subject are examined, the holes will be found in the exact place on each.
All of the Currier prints were printed from stones on which the drawing had been done entirely by hand, but nowadays most of this work is done partially or entirely by mechanical means. Knowledge of this present-day process is a help to the beginner in distinguishing original Currier & Ives prints from reproductions.
The subject to be reproduced today is photographed and a half-tone screen is placed directly in front of the photographic film or plate. This screen is made by coating a sheet of optically flat glass with a composition similar to that used by an etcher to coat the plate on which he is to draw. This glass is placed in an automatic ruling machine which with the aid of a diamond point can rule any desired number of lines from 50 to 300 to the inch. These lines are at mathematically equal distances from each other, and after ruling, the glass is treated with hydrofluoric acid which bites into the lines. After the glass has been cleaned up, an opaque pigment is rubbed into the lines. Two of these ruled sheets of glass are cemented together with a transparent balsam and with the lines running at right angles to each other. The result is a screen containing little squares of clear glass through which the light can pass, whereas it cannot pass through the opaqued lines.
When the subject has been photographed a screened negative is obtained. When examined with a strong glass, the picture is found to consist of a geometrical system of dots, and the finished print will have the identical design. It is possible to print on a fairly rough paper using a screen as fine as 300 lines to the inch. To the naked eye, this series of infinitesimal dots will appear as an unbroken line as is the case in an original print, and the novice will have trouble distinguishing the original from the reproduction. If the illustrations in this book, for instance, are examined with a magnifying glass, you will see what is meant. Nearly all reproductions are made this way.
The beginner should always buy from reputable dealers until such time as he is capable of determining the difference between an original and a reproduction. Any dealer specializing in old prints will be found to be honest, and he will be pleased to advise and help in every way possible.
Concerns making reproductions are engaged in a perfectly legitimate profession, and they have no intention of defrauding you. However, unscrupulous persons sometimes scrape off the publisher's name or artificially age the print to make it appear to be an original. Another device is to put the print in an old frame; therefore, it is always advisable to insist on the removal of the print before buying. Refusal to remove the print from the frame should be regarded as a suspicious circumstance.