American Studies Home Site Map Gallery of Prints Writing Across the Curriculum Currier & Ives Introduction Currier & Ives Opening

Overview | Nostalgia | The End of an Age

Currier & Ives: Their History
The printing firm billed itself as a purveyor of "America's Best, Cheapest, and Most Popular Pictures." Nathaniel Currier started his solo firm in 1835 and made James Ives his partner in 1857. Between 1835 and 1907, when the company was sold, it produced more than 7,500 different titles and more than one million prints. The last original prints, of the Spanish-American War, were created in 1898, three years after James Ives had died, eighteen years after Nathaniel Currier had retired.

The prints were sold to be framed, nailed, tacked, or glued with home-made flour-and-water paste onto the walls of houses, shops, garages, and even barns. Many of the prints made their way into advertisements, onto calendars, cigarbox labels, or trading cards. The images could be found everywhere–although for the most part, the upper class disdained them for cheapening "fine art."

Currier and Ives were not in the business of selling nostalgia and its cousin, sentiment, so much as they were in the business of selling. They had a nearly uncanny sense of marketing, and they adjusted their merchandise according to what people wanted. At the same time, they were keen observers who, through sheer numbers of prints and marketing strategies, influenced what was popular. They quickly scrapped or revised a print according to how well it sold.

Nostalgia and sentiment were not the only visceral commodities that Currier and Ives peddled; but those kinds of images were especially popular during and after the Civil War. They also sold images ranging from still lifes to portraits. Early prints, such as that run in an extra edition of The Sun in 1840, "Awful Conflagration of the Steam Boat Lexington," illustrated disasters visually. N. Currier's first disaster print, "Ruins of the Merchants' Exchange New York after the Destructive Conflagration of Decbr. 16 & 17, 1835," sold thousands of prints when it appeared four days after the fire. Currier's savvy sense of what the public wanted propelled him into the lucrative arena of newspaper and magazine illustration and made his early reputation. It was not until Ives joined the firm in 1852 that the firm began to develop a market for the kinds of nostalgic and sentimental fare that we associate with Currier and Ives. (8)

Political cartoons were a sideline of a radically different nature. Until 1880, when N. Currier left the firm, the company regularly published visual commentary that mocked political candidates, the economy, African Americans, Irish Americans, the Chinese, suffrage, Reconstruction, and the like.

Overview | Nostalgia | Currier & Ives | The End of an Age

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American Studies Home Site Map Gallery of Prints Writing Across the Curriculum Currier & Ives Introduction Currier & Ives Opening

Site created by Marcy McDonald, American Studies, UVA. Last modified: July 30, 2005. E-mail: asgrp@virginia.edu

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