The Old Print Shop



Brief history of N. Currier and Currier & Ives
The largest print publisher in the world.

Currier & Ives is the largest publisher of hand made lithographs. The firm published well over 7,000 images in its seventy-three year history. All are drawn on stone and printed by hand in the traditional method of lithography. Over the years the firm worked with many artists and craftsmen. The founder, Nathaniel Currier, was a trained lithographer; and his partner, James Merritt Ives, who was a bookkeeper, also proved himself to be a talented draftsman.

One cannot give the story of Currier & Ives without looking at America 's first successful lithographic publishing house, the Pendletons of Boston. The brothers, William and John Pendleton, established their business in 1824 in Boston , Massachusetts . They imported stones, presses, and craftsmen from Europe and began as a commercial printing shop, first creating images for other business and soon thereafter publishing prints for sale to the public. At the age of fifteen, Nathaniel Currier became the first of many apprentices for the Pendletons. He was trained to be a lithographic printer and to run a lithographic business. Nathaniel Currier moved to Philadelphia in 1833 and went to work for M. E. D. Brown. He was only there a short time when he moved to New York City to join John Pendleton, who had opened a lithographic printing firm in the city. John Pendleton was not pleased with the business in New York City and appeared to have a better offer elsewhere. He sold the business in 1834 to Nathaniel Currier and a gentleman named Stodart. Little is know about Stodart, as he left the business shortly after the partnership was formed. According to Harry T. Peters in Currier & Ives: Printmakers to the American People , ?the arrangement was not agreeable financially or otherwise.? The imprint of Currier & Stodart only appears on a handful of prints - one of which is Dartmouth College .

In 1835 the name of the firm changed to N. Currier Lithographer and would remain that until 1857. During these early years the firm was primarily known for its commercial work printing advertising, letterheads, music sheets or other work that it was paid to produce. Nathaniel Currier was always interested in being more than a commercial printing shop and was always looking for opportunities to sell images to the public. His first foray into selling directly to the public was creating images for newsworthy events. Almost all the newspapers before the late 1850's were not illustrated. The enterprising Currier hired artists to created images for the sensational news stories. His first that we know of was ? Ruins of the Planters Hotel, New Orleans , which fell at two O'clock , on the Morning of the 15h of May 1835, burying 50 persons, 40 of which escaped with their lives.? It was published in 1835 following the disaster. This print is rare so it was not a success, but it shows the interest of Currier in publishing prints to sell to the public. The first successful news worthy print published by the firm in 1840 was the sinking of the Steam Ship Lexington, and it was published in conjunction with the New York Sun, the largest paper in New York City at the time. The image was drawn by W. K. Hewitt, lithographed and printed by Currier, sold under The Extra Sun banner with text in a broadside format. According to records Currier's presses ran day and night for months to fill the demand for the Extra Sunbroadside. It was so popular that even when the New York Sun was no longer interested in selling the broadside, Currier changed the broadside and continued publishing it without The Extra Sun banner. The image of the disaster was also sold as a small folio lithograph with many variations, so it was published for many years after the disaster.

We do not know exactly when the firm started publishing images for sale to the public, but it is likely that it was fairly early on and probably met with limited success. His first copyrighted image was in 1838. Commercial images did not need to be copyrighted, but images for sale to the public did need image protection or one of their many competitors would have taken the image and published it themselves. It is also known that by the late 1840's the firm was aggressively marketing images to the public for sale as individual prints. The decade starting in 1850 saw the growth and influence that the firm would have on the industry for the next quarter of a century. The number of images that were copyrighted expanded considerably during this time. More large folio images were being issued and aggressive marketing terms were being put forward. Another important change was the hiring of a new bookkeeper, James Merritt Ives. Ives was the brother-in-law of Nathaniel's brother, Charles Currier. Although Ives was not a trained artist or lithographer, he was not without considerable skills. His name is listed as the artist on several images published by the firm, and he had a good sense of what the public was interested in. Most importantly, he got along well with Currier who in 1857 made him a partner, and the name of the firm was changed from N. Currier to Currier & Ives. It has been said that the name Currier & Ives is linked with the growth of the city, as well as the nation, and Ives was a major part of the growth of the firm.

The most productive years for N. Currier and Currier & Ives were the three decades after 1850. The majority of the "famous" images that the firm published were produced during this period. Many artists worked for the firm. Frances Flora Palmer, known as Fanny F. Palmer, was one of the best known. [She was responsible for the majority of landscape images produced by the firm, even though only a few bear her name.] Also included are Louis Maurer, Thomas Worth, John Cameron, Charles Parsons, Napoleon Sarony, and Otto Knirsch. Most of the lettering was done by J. Schultz. Hundreds of other craftspeople worked for the firm grinding stones, printing, coloring, selling, and supplying images. Two additional artists of importance who submitted paintings or drawings to be made into lithographs were George Henry Durrie, the New England winter scene painter, and Arthur F. Tait, the sporting and Western artist.

The firm specialized in hand made, hand colored prints. Although steam presses existed, Currier and Ives felt that the impressions were inferior to the hand-pulled impressions. Prices for small folio handcolored lithographs were 20 cents each and $6 a hundred, black and white. The large folios ranged from $3 to $5 each. They were not limited edition publishers, so how many impressions of each print were produced is unknown. In general, the firm did not make an image unless it felt that it could sell 100 impressions. Stones of prints that sold well were saved and numbered for later printings if necessary. Stones of slower selling prints and small folios were reground and reused for another image. If a number of impressions were needed quickly of an image, several stones were made as two printers can print twice as fast and one. To do this, a stone was drawn and it became the parent stone. Printing with specially formulated ink, the image was printed on transfer paper and applied to another stone. The image line-for-line would be identical to the parent stone; however, the grain pattern would differ, as each stone has a unique grain pattern. Also, if the new stone had a defect, it would print the defect. New stones and multiple printing stones answer the question of why impression quality varies widely in the prints. The firm would also reprint stones at a much later date. The most celebrated of these was the Life of a Fireman series, which was reprinted in 1884. (It is interesting to note that Nathaniel Currier and James M. Ives were volunteer firemen in New York City .)

The firm of Currier & Ives closed permanently in 1907. During the last fifteen years the firm was not very productive, as tastes had changed and photography, which was invented in 1840, finally became easily printable. After the retirement of Nathaniel Currier in 1880, his son, Edward West Currier, succeeded him; and on the death of James Merritt Ives in 1895 his son, Chauncy Ives, succeeded him. In 1902 Edward sold his half of the business to Chauncy and in 1907 Chauncy sold the firm to the son of a former sales manager, Daniel W. Logan. Poor health forced Mr. Logan to close the shop and dispose of its assets not long after he purchased it.

It should be noted that the reason for the closing of the venerable firm was not just the lack of interest by the second generation. There were also great changes happening in collecting habits and newer commercial processes, namely, photolithography that took away the profitable commercial business. America lost most of its lithographic houses between the years 1870 and 1910. Cheaper, faster commercial presses were replacing the age old hand run lithographic presses. The quality of these new presses did not produce images of the same quality as hand printed lithographs, but the savings were more important than quality in commercial work. Even today, if an artist wants a high quality lithograph, he will seek out one of the several craftsmen who will print lithography from a stone on a hand press as they have over the last two centuries.

Robert K. Newman, 2010