Currier & Ives America's Printmakers

Currier & Ives America's Printmakers

LiveAuctionTalk.com:  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Garth's Auctions.

Think of Currier & Ives as the printmakers for the American people in the 19th century.  That’s what they were.  For a few cents they offered people a slice of life in the 1800s.  Their prints were hand-colored and done in loving detail.

The printmakers opened up the world for people who rarely left their neighborhoods.  Sentimental and popular, the public obviously shared their take on life because you would be hard pressed to visit a parlor in the mid-19th century without seeing at least one Currier & Ives print hanging somewhere.

The team referred to their company as the “Grand Central Depot for Cheap and Popular Prints.”   This was the era before radio, before television and before photography showed up in newspapers. 

Life in print was black-and-white.  Nathaniel Currier and James Merritt Ives added the color. 

It’s hard to miss with titles like “Welcome to Our Home,” “The Wedding Day,” “Christmas Snow,” and “The Children’s Picnic.”

An assembly line of women each used a separate tint of watercolors to make the print illustrations come to life.  Currier & Ives employed about a dozen colorists. 

Everything from Columbus landing at San Salvador, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the life of firemen, to mighty clipper ships sailing on the high seas and a Christmas in the country could be purchased, hung and appreciated.  Smaller prints sold wholesale for six cents.  Larger prints and folios were priced at 15 cents to $3. 

The printmakers opened up the world for people who rarely left their neighborhoods.  Sentimental and popular, the public obviously shared their take on life because you would be hard pressed to visit a parlor in the mid-19th century without seeing at least one Currier & Ives print hanging somewhere.

Currier & Ives had their finger on the pulse of America.  They knew what the public wanted.  News and nostalgia were their strong points. 

Headquartered in downtown New York’s newspaper district from 1834–1907, they also produced prints from paintings by fine artists.  From disasters to domestic scenes, Currier & Ives didn’t miss much.  It has been estimated they produced 7,000-8,000 individual prints.

Their prints were sold either from Currier & Ives shop or from private print sellers.  Street vendors could be spotted pushing carts filled with prints around New York and other cities.  They were also sold abroad.

Related by marriage, Ives started with the company as a bookkeeper.  Five years later in 1857 Currier made him a partner. The firm was in business until 1907.

Currier & Ives prints weren’t without bias.  They pictured the Chinese, Irish and Afro-Americans as bumbling and brainless.

Nowadays Currier & Ives prints are desirable.  There are genres for just about every print collector ranging from sports, games, and home life to religion, entertainment, life in the country and disasters. 

The prints are numbered and offer an old-world view of an America that once was.  It’s nostalgia that speaks to collectors. 

Condition is everything.  With regard to value, water stains, foxing, or significant browning is the beginning of the end for these prints.  Any print which has been in contact with an acidic environment will become acidic.  

On May 29, Garth’s Auctions featured a selection of Currier & Ives prints in its Ohio Valley auction.  

Currier & Ives

A Home in the Country; hand colored lithograph on paper; C#2860; 13 3/8 inches by 18 ½ inches;  $235.

The Trotting Gelding Frank; chromolithograph on paper; C#6174;  14 2/8 inches by 18 ½ inches;  $353.

Declaration of Independence; hand colored lithograph on paper; by Currier; C#1532; 10 ½ inches by 17 inches;  $470.

The Celebrated Stallions George Wilkes and Commodore Vanderbilt; Hand colored lithograph on paper; C#897;  26 ¾ inches by 33 inches;  $570.

The Life of a Fireman; hand colored lithograph on paper; C#3517;  19 1/8 inches by 27 7/8 inches;  $3,231.  

Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her LiveAuctionTalk.com website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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