In the latter half of the 1800s, American printmaking firm Currier and Ives produced more than 7,500 images and millions of individual prints, described in their catalogue as “the best, cheapest, and most popular pictures in the world.” While many shuddered at the notion of art for the masses, “tasteful” décor priced for the middle-class consumer had enormous commercial appeal, and the prolific Currier and Ives would help shape the story Americans told about themselves.
Nathaniel Currier (1813–1888), the firm’s founder, was born in Roxbury, Massachusetts, and grew up Unitarian, attending First Church in Roxbury, now home to the UU Urban Ministry. At 15, he became an apprentice to Boston lithographers William and John Pendleton and by his early twenties had established his own firm in New York City, where he would later become a member and board member of the Unitarian Church of All Souls. His friends included prominent Universalists Horace B. Greeley, editor of the New-York Tribune, and P.T. Barnum, creator of the Barnum & Bailey Circus.
In the nineteenth century, lithography provided a cheap and speedy method for mass producing illustrated materials. Before widespread use of photography, lithography provided newspaper readers with vivid imagery of current events. Currier’s first major success was an 1840 newspaper “extra” depicting the Awful Conflagration of the Steam Boat Lexington. (Victims included famous Unitarian minister the Rev. Charles Follen.) In 1852, Currier hired James Merritt Ives (1824–1895) as a bookkeeper and the two worked so well together that he advanced Ives to partner just five years later.
In addition to portraits of notables like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, Currier and Ives produced cartoons, advertisements, and a vast catalogue of images, including the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, railroads, clipper ships, American cities, and rural landscapes. Prints like Battle at Bunker’s Hill helped form what historian Bryan F. Le Beau has called “a usable past” for America, to rival the dense tapestry of European history and cultivate a shared identity. The America of Currier and Ives, writes Le Beau, was “a product of consensus,” fashioned by two savvy businessmen, artists working in assembly-line fashion to draw, print, and hand-color the images, and a buying public that craved ennobling pictures of American life. The prints’ details lent them an air of reportorial accuracy, yet many were created from second- or third-hand accounts and liberal creative license. They conveyed a sense of stability and opportunity that soothed anxieties about change—urbanism, technology, immigration, and the upheavals of the Civil War. Not surprisingly, the center figures are white, middle-class men. Women are portrayed as angels of the home, and depictions of African Americans and Native Americans reflect the deep-seated racism of the times. In Colonial images like The Landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, Native Americans observe from the margins. Civil War prints feature heroic battles and orderly camps in which African Americans and slavery are largely absent (a notable exception is their depiction of a heroic charge by the all-black 54th Massachusetts Regiment).
Residents of fast-growing cities were the perfect audience for images of an idealized New England. If Currier and Ives’s bucolic scenes were appealingly different for city dwellers, they may have had an unfamiliar look to actual farmers as well. The festive picnic in American Forest Scene: Maple Sugaring was a far cry from the labors of real maple sugaring, but its appeal—then and now—is the portrayal of benevolent nature, kinship, and joyful work.
Currier and Ives retired in 1880 and 1895 respectively, and their sons closed the firm in 1907. In the 1920s, art collector Harry T. Peters brought them back to the spotlight with his book Currier and Ives: Printmakers to the American People. In 1950, they appeared in another piece of popular art—the song “Sleigh Ride,” describing a winter outing so perfect, “It’ll nearly be like a picture print by Currier and Ives.”
Today, Currier and Ives originals hang in museums and galleries, but the images seem most at home in humbler places: a copy of Home to Thanksgiving in a city apartment, or a greeting card featuring American Country Life: May Morning. By telling an American story that’s familiar, though incomplete, the prints of Currier and Ives have become part of that story, a testament to the fact that many Americans treasure our history, and our mythologies even more.