Currier & Ives was America's longest running printing establishment, publishing over seven-thousand images covering a span of seventy-three years. The early history of Currier & Ives follows its founder, Nathaniel Currier, and the first lithographic house of America, William and John Pendleton of Boston.
The Pendleton brothers established their business in 1824, importing from Europe the stones, presses, artists, and craftsmen to publish prints and do commercial or job printing. At the age of fifteen, Nathaniel Currier became Pendletons first apprentice. The firm taught him the lithographic printing business; other apprentices of the Pendletons included J. W. A. Scott and Benjamin F. Nutting. When John Pendleton moved to Philadelphia to set up a lithographic shop, the young Currier went with him. In 1833 John Pendleton moved to New York City to open another lithographic shop; however, business was better elsewhere, so he sold the New York operation to Currier and a gentleman named Stodart in 1834. Stodart left the business shortly after its inception. It appeared that Currier and Stodart did not get along and the arrangement was not agreeable financially or otherwise according to Harry T. Peters. The imprint of Currier & Stodart only appears on a handful of prints - one of which is Dartmouth College.
During the early years, Nathaniel Currier ran more of a job press than a print publishing house. Peters states that the first print published in the style which made the firm famous 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, which was published in 1835. However, his first financial success came in 1840 and was, in conjunction with the New York Sun, the largest of New York City's newspapers at the time. The broadside of the sinking of the "Lexington" published under the banner The Extra Sun had a lithographic image of the disaster by N. Currier. According to records Currier's presses ran day and night for months to fill the demand.
James Merritt Ives joined Currier as a bookkeeper in 1852. He was the brother-in-law of Charles Currier who recommended him to his brother, Nathaniel. Ives knowledge of art, his ability to understand what the public wanted, and to communicate it to the many artists who worked at the firm made him an indispensable member of the firm. In 1857 he was made a full partner and the name 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 handmade, handcolored 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. 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. Durring 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, however, if an artist wants a high quality lithograph, he will seek out one of the several craftsmen who will print lithography, as they have over the last two centuries, off a stone on a hand press.
Robert K. Newman December 2000.