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& 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
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.
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.
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