Currier & Ives described their prints as ‘cheap and popular,’ and while they’re still popular, they are hardly cheap. Prints that once sold for 15 cents or a dollar can now command several thousand dollars from collectors.
Currier & Ives was in business for 72 years, from 1835 to 1907. The firm was founded by Nathaniel Currier, born in Roxbury, Mass., on March 27, 1817. He started working at eight years old after his father died. At 15, Currier apprenticed at the Boston lithography shop of William and John Pendleton.
Currier moved to Philadelphia, where he had a short but not very lucrative partnership with a New York printmaker. He then set up his own shop in New York City. Currier hit on the key to his ultimate success in 1835 with a lithograph of a fire sweeping through New York’s business district. He sold thousands of prints in four days and realized there was a market for dramatic scenes of recent news events.
Five years later he had a blockbuster with ‘Awful Conflagration of the Steamboat Lexington,’ a tragic fire that killed 139 people aboard a steamship in Long Island Sound.
Currier & Ives
In 1857, James Merritt Ives joined Currier, bringing to the business a flair for marketing and the ability to handle finances.
Currier & Ives produced at least 7,500 lithographs during its seven decades. Artists created two to three new images every week on lithographic stones. The range of images included boats, battle scenes, politics, portraits, landscapes, city life and sports. Rural New England scenes in winter were especially popular.
The firm made prints from the work of the most celebrated artists of the day: Eastman Johnson, George Inness and Thomas Nast. It also employed its own artists, like Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait, who specialized in sporting scenes. Fanny Palmer did picturesque panoramas and may have been the first woman in America to make a living as an artist. Louis Maurer supplied genre scenes and George Durrie produced much-loved rural winter scenes.
The company printed in black and white and then colored by hand in assembly-line fashion, with each worker applying one color. Currier & Ives sold more than a million prints, through peddlers, pushcart vendors and bookstores. And it sold through the mail and through an international office in London.
Currier & Ives prints got a boost when the Beecher sisters gave them their stamp of approval. In American Woman’s Home, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Catharine Esther Beecher called them appropriate decorations for the home. “They should express the sincere ideas and tastes of the household and not the tyrannical dicta of some art critic or neighbor,” wrote the Beechers in 1869.
Currier had a taste for fast horses, which he kept at his estate on Lion’s Mouth Road in Amesbury, Mass. One of his good friends shared his flair for showmanship — P.T. Barnum. Currier retired in 1880 and died November 20, 1888.
Currier and Ives’ sons carried on the business until they liquidated in 1907. They had the images removed from most of the lithographic stones and sold them by the pound. Some ended up as landfill in Central Park.
This story was updated in 2022.