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. He 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.
In 1857, 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: Arthur Fitzwilliam Taft, who specialized in sporting scenes, Fanny Palmer, who did picturesque panoramas (and may have been the first woman in America to make a living as an artist), Louis Maurer, who supplied genre scenes and George Durrie, who produced rural winter scenes.
The images were 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, through the mail and through an international office in London.
Currier & Ives prints were considered appropriate decorations for the home, according to Harriet Beecher Stowe and Catharine Esther Beecher, who wrote, American Woman’s Home, “They should express the sincere ideas and tastes of the household and not the tyrannical dicta of some art critic or neighbor."
Nathaniel Currier married Eliza West Farnsworth, who died young. They had one child, Edward West Currier. He married Lura Ormsbee in 1847.
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.
The business was carried on by Currier & Ives’ sons until 1907, when it was liquidated. The images were removed from most of the lithographic stones and they were sold by the pound. Some ended up as landfill in Central Park.
This story was updated from the 2014 version.