Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Holiday Season Isn't Complete Without Currier & Ives

The holiday season is upon is and it can't be properly celebrated without noting the accomplishments of one of the most lucrative and popular printing establishments in US history.This lovely scene, showing a winter-time horse and carriage race, is a fine example of the types of prints produced by Currier & Ives.

The partnership of Nathaniel Currier and James Merritt Ives was formed in 1852 and lasted until 1902. Its popularity stemmed largely from commercial projects, including sheet music, architectural plans,  and pictorial images for the New York Sun newspaper. Their timeliness to produce images based upon topics from the daily news gained them national exposure, and allowed them to pursue other projects like landscapes, and images of Americana  - and the implied enjoyments found therein.

Currier was a trainer printer and worked in several establishments before starting his own business in 1835, on Wall Street in New York City, called simply 'N.Currier, lithographer'. He did all types of subjects, just to keep the business flowing, but when he latched onto the idea of doing prints about newsworthy and natural disasters, the business took off.  Currier was introduced to Jim Ives through his brother Charles. Ives' background as a bookkeeper and an artist served Currier's interests well. They worked together for five years, and then formed the partnership of 'Currier & Ives' in 1857.  The two complimented each others' professional ideas and personal temperaments and became lifelong friends as well as business partners.

The production of Currier & Ives images was traditional lithography, but because of demand and production capabilities of the day, they employed young immigrant women to 'color' their images in an assembly line, loosely resembling the traditions of medieval monasteries to color Biblical illustrations. They moved to 33 Spruce Street in New York City and operated a highly efficient business on  three floors - one for the printing of images, one for the workmen and grinding of stones, and one for the 'coloring' department. It was said that during the Civil War, the production of images was so high, they had to go to a stencil method of coloring images rather than use actual artists. Currier & Ives also outsourced some of the color work, and they had dealers selling their images. It was also popular back then for schools to order black and white prints to teach painting to their classes.

On a side note, Currier's relatives helped in the business. His younger brother, Charles, was trained as a lithographer, and patented a lithographic pencil called Crayola,  while his artistic brother, Lorenzo, traveled the US sketching ideas for the numerous Americana images that are so popular today. His cousin, who supplied Currier with all his presses, operated a printing press business called Cyrus Currier & Son, in Newark, New Jersey.

Nat and Jim called their business "publishers of cheap and popular pictures". In all, they produced over 7500 titles, and printed over one million images between 1835-1907. Both men passed their business partnership onto their sons who operated until 1907. The popularity of these images transcends to today, and they are seen as a vitally important part of American history and its interests from the period. Happy Holidays to one and all!

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