Of all names related to antique prints, “Currier and Ives” is the most recognized by the general public. Though the name is familiar, many do not know to what the name refers. Currier & Ives was a New York firm that published and sold popular lithographs for much of the nineteenth century. These prints were issued in three general sizes--small, medium and large--with the small folio prints selling for about 20 cents each, and the large folio for between $1 and $3. The prints were sold individually in the Currier & Ives store, in other print shops around the country, and even from peddlers’ carts in city streets.
The firm was founded in 1834 by Nathaniel Currier, who took his bookkeeper, James Ives, as partner in 1857. Thus all the prints issued before 1857 will list just Currier as publisher. From familiarity and for convenience, however, all prints issued by the firm are called “Currier & Ives” prints. Currier died in 1888, and Ives rejoined his partner in 1895. Their sons continued the business for a while, though without great success, and the firm was finally dissolved in 1907.
Most Currier & Ives prints were issued with bright hand coloring. The small folio prints were usually colored by a ‘production line’ of young girls, each applying a single color, while the large folio prints were sent out to be colored by professional artists. Many of the prints issued by Currier & Ives were “rush” prints which illustrated current events from around the country, such as fires and other disasters. These provided one of the only means by which the public could get a graphic image of these events. Besides current events, the firm issued prints of many types; religious, comic, floral, western, nautical, genre scenes and others. These were Currier & Ives’ “stock” prints, which were sold as an inexpensive way to add color and decoration to the home. These prints were extremely popular with the American public, and they could be found hanging in houses in all parts of the country.
Currier & Ives were truly “Printmakers to the People,” and the characteristic that really distinguishes their prints is the panoramic picture that they provided of America in the nineteenth century. The prints express a romantic image of America , depicting an idyllic world filled with smiling children, pretty ladies, gallant men, prosperous farms, warm homes in beautiful winter settings and so forth. This rosy image was popular with the public of the time, as proved by the firm’s great success, and it is equally popular with the public of today. The collecting of Currier & Ives prints began in the early twentieth century, reaching a peak in the 1830’s when several important reference books were issued and Travelers Insurance Company began using Currier & Ives prints on their calendars.
It was also in the 1830’s that two panels of experts selected what they considered to be the “Best” 50 large and the “Best” 50 small folio prints. These prints were shown in the New York Sun in full page illustrations, and the publicity surrounding this project created much new interest in Currier & Ives prints. This year, the American Historical Print Collector’s Society is selecting a “New Best 50” of both large and small folio prints. This project is intended not to replace, but to compliment the original list. A panel of experts selected what they considered to be the best 100 prints of each size, and then the national membership of the AHPCS voted on the New Best 50. The results of this election will be announced this coming June in Milwaukee , and the entire project and results will be discussed in a forthcoming publication which will illustrate all the selected prints.
Collecting Currier & Ives prints is one of the most satisfying and affordable activities related to antique prints. Currier & Ives prints come in all sizes and prices, and they cover almost any subject conceivable. Anyone with an penchant for old prints and who is interested in America in the nineteenth century will be well rewarded by pursuing such a collection.
Like those who collect any sort of antique, collectors of Currier & Ives prints should follow certain rules. In general it is best to follow some theme in one’s collection. Many collectors focus on the original Best 50, and now many will seek out the New Best 50. Others collect prints of a certain subject, be it train prints, western prints, comic prints, or whatever. Other sorts of themes would include prints with animals in them, prints of Presidents, or prints showing musical instruments. In fact, with over 7,000 different Currier & Ives prints, one could build a worthwhile collection on almost any theme that could be imagined.
Once a theme is selected the collector must learn to judge the quality of prints that he finds. Condition is a very important factor in determining value of Currier & Ives prints. The most rigorous collectors will not purchase any print that does not have wide margins, bright color, and no blemishes in the image. As the more desirable prints are steadily getting harder to find, and as Currier & Ives prints in ‘mint’ condition generally bring very high prices, it is important for each collector to decide how close to ‘mint’ a print must be to be added to the collection. It is clearly better to acquire prints in very good or excellent condition. However, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with adding prints in even poor condition to one’s collection as long as the price paid is relative to that condition. Each collector must determine the standards of his own collection, but it should be kept in mind that the point of collecting prints is to build a collection that one will enjoy, and this criterion, rather than that of condition, should be used as the final standard of acceptance.
Once the collector finds a print that fits his collection, the question must be raised as to the authenticity of the print under consideration. It is important to realize that no antique print has been more reproduced than Currier & Ives prints. Many of the reproductions are obviously so, but many of the reproductions are so similar to the originals that only an expert can tell, and even then not in all cases can the authenticity be judged for certain. A collector should learn as much as possible about telling the difference between originals and reproductions. If a collector is not certain on this point, he should ask for a guarantee of authenticity from the seller. If this is not available, then the collector should spend only as much as he would be willing to throw away or as much as he would be willing to spend for a decorative print with no historic or antique value.
If a print is determined to be original, the question arises about what price to pay. This is, as discussed above, directly related to condition, but how does the collector determine the price range a print should be in? There are a number of price guides available, but these should be used with great caution. Prices vary greatly and they are constantly shooting upwards, so no price guide can be completely accurate and all guides will soon be out of date. The guides are best to be used in order to determine a relative value of types of prints so that the collector can develop a feeling for price ranges. In general, if a desirable print is available in very good condition and the price is not completely out of line, it is better to acquire the print, even if paying more than one wishes, than to later regret this perhaps never to be repeated opportunity.
Looking to the future of collecting Currier & Ives prints, the New Best 50 project should add to the recent increase in values. Over the long run the prospect for increasing values for Currier & Ives prints is very strong. These prints are scarce and very decorative, both factors that increase values. Beyond this, Currier & Ives prints have a tremendous historic value, for more than any other type of print they reflect America ’s past as Americans tend to imagine it. This is because Currier & Ives were instrumental in creating that image. With their tremendous output and insightful understanding of American popular taste, Mr. Currier and Mr. Ives issued prints that not only illustrated their times, but also that created the image which pervaded American culture, and which has come down to our day as the paradigm of the romance of America. There are no better prints to collect than prints by the “Printmakers to the People.”