When it went out of business in 1907, printmaker Currier & Ives ended a storied run of producing art for the masses that had lasted three quarters of a century.
But within a couple of decades, its famous lithographs, made obsolete by everyday photography, were rediscovered as nostalgia. They’ve had a place on calendars and Christmas cards ever since.
Do these rosy visions of yesteryear still have anything to tell us?
A traveling exhibition at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme explores how the legendary firm depicted the country, its scenes of hearth and history influenced by America’s 19th-century tastes and, sometimes, its worst impulses.
“Revisiting America: The Prints of Currier & Ives” is a tour of the publisher’s hefty catalogue, which spanned years of westward expansion, technological progress and social transformation. What it reveals is shaped by our evolving understanding of the past.
Take “Central Park, Winter: The Skating Pond,” an 1862 scene of a New York City activity still enjoyed today. The frozen surface bustles with happy couples and children gliding on the ice, a few slipping and landing on their backsides.
A Victorian idyll? Maybe, unless you consider that everyone is so close together there’s hardly room to move. That was life in the Big Apple, then as now. More important, there’s no sign of the class and race tensions that must have been part of all that uncomfortable proximity. Such things were not suitable for framing.
That paradox is the key to a modern appreciation of Currier & Ives. The America it depicted wasn’t the real one, but it wasn’t fictional either. Instead it was a commercially appealing blend of the two. Understanding that appeal reveals the era as much as the images themselves.
The prints are among 600 owned by the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Neb. They were originally a private collection.
Nostalgia drove Currier & Ives’ output as much as it has kept their work alive. As people migrated to cities for jobs, they grew sentimental for the rural lives they had left behind. Sensing this, the firm cranked out rustic scenes, and they sold. A print popular during the Civil War, called “Husking,” shows generations working together on a farm, a welcome counterpoint to cold urban factories, and probably battlefield carnage as well.
The exhibition organizes 100 or so prints by broad themes that reflect 19th-century life. The transportation revolution, for example, is seen in fast clipper ships, Mississippi steamboats and chugging locomotives.
The images are lovely, the reality less so. One graceful clipper withstood a mutiny attempt against a brutal captain. On the picturesque side-wheelers, poor passengers had their things stolen while rich ones were swindled by gamblers.
Trains are pictured in harmony with the landscape, down to their perfect plumes of smoke. But they hastened the subjugation of Native Americans and required backbreaking labor by Chinese and European immigrants who built the lines. Railroads must have held a special place for Currier & Ives, who depicted shipwrecks and fires but never a train accident.
Fire was how it all began. In December 1835, after a blaze had ravaged Manhattan, Nathaniel Currier, a printer of handbills and trade cards, sold an image of the Merchant’s Exchange building, its columned façade in ruins. When he had to print thousands of copies to keep up with demand, he knew he was on to something. The public had an appetite for disaster, and the enterprising tradesman satisfied it.
Destruction wasn’t all people wanted. Currier and his later partner, James Merritt Ives, sold images of public works like the Brooklyn Bridge, scenes of domestic bliss, and historic events like the Boston Tea Party. There was even a market for images of cuddly felines, a forebear of the cat video.
Currier & Ives became a name brand, its artists relatively anonymous. The exhibition singles out a few for belated kudos, including Frances Palmer, an Englishwoman who produced 200 scenes as an independent contractor; Arthur Tait, who idealized fishing and hunting expeditions; and New Haven-born George Henry Durrie, whose winter vistas shaped the firm’s signature look.
Their works were engraved on a limestone slab, from which copies were printed and colored. Never meant to be high art, the prints were the opposite, sold cheap to adorn the kitchens and parlors of ordinary folk. An early example of mass-media culture, they reflected the mainstream the way a poster, T-shirt or Twitter feed does today.
When popular imagination seized on the frontier’s golden promise, Currier & Ives responded with buffalo hunts and wagon trains on the Oregon Trail, all created from the comfort of New York studios. An 1868 print called “Across the Continent” takes in the entire westward movement. Pioneers arrive and chop trees for log cabins, then the completed town welcomes the railroad as tracks and telegraph wires stretch to the boundless horizon. Meanwhile, Native Americans on horseback contemplate the future from a distance.
That’s where things get complicated for a 21st-century viewer. Three prints portray the uneasy relationship between Indians and those who gradually took over their world. They could be read as chapters in a single story.
In “A Parley,” a fur trader and a warrior warily meet face to face as their respective compatriots wait at a distance with weapons ready, just in case. In “The Prairie Hunter,” a trader gallops away in fear while pursuing natives ready their bows and arrows. Finally, in “American Frontier Life,” a hunter crouches behind a rock with his gun, plotting against Indians at their evening campfire.
With the hunters the subject of each print and the Indians indistinct and remote, it’s clear which side we’re supposed to be rooting for.
Depictions of the Old South are similarly problematic. After the Civil War, the market was again driven by nostalgia, this time for a lost way of life, with its unique evil absurdly whitewashed. Several prints show contented slaves dancing happily, with one title, “Good Times on the Old Plantation,” summing up everything about it that’s cringeworthy.
Currier & Ives’ depiction of African-Americans is certainly nothing to celebrate, but the exhibition treats the issue with nuance. Among the publisher’s many horse-racing scenes, for instance, are some showing Black jockeys, who won the Kentucky Derby in 15 of the first 28 races before the sport was segregated. For some reason, they are free of the stereotypes that plague other works.
Two noteworthy prints are mentioned but unfortunately not shown. One, from Reconstruction-era Washington, was called “The First Colored Senator and Representatives.” The other expressly denounced slavery, but unsurprisingly, it didn’t sell. So the publisher bowed to market forces and gave people what they wanted.
Despite such failings, Currier & Ives remains an indelible part of the nation’s visual heritage. Its snow-capped homesteads, baseball games and infantry charges live on, not just in museum exhibitions, but on custom china, whiskey labels and postage stamps.
Their power to summon the past is their magic. Whether that past is serene or troubled, real or imagined, it’s ours.