June 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 4
They were, without question, the busiest people on earth. When they were not fighting Indians, Mexicans, or each other, they were hacking a nation of cities, farms, and factories out of the continental wilderness. In spare moments they built graceful steamboats, high-stepping railroad engines, and tall sailing ships to seek the world’s commerce. Rough, practical, hard-handed, these Nineteenth-Century Americans were, yet sentimental to the core. They hung mottoes seriously. They approached romance primly and gingerly, like an unexploded bomb. They read sermons for pleasure and wept easily. Funerals, deathbeds (especially of young females wasting away with consumption), floods, explosions, mournful poetry, tales of unrequited love, these moved them excruciatingly. The Age of Go-Ahead was strangely intertwined with an Age of Gloom; the Voice from the Tomb was heard with delicious sorrow between blasts of the steam whistle. But of course they laughed too, genteelly or uproariously. It is all there, the achievements and the sorrows, the tears and the laughter, in Currier & Ives.
Seldom has the hour met the man with more felicity than when the mid-Nineteenth Century found Nathaniel Currier, its greatest, most successful lithographer who, with the partner he took on exactly 100 years ago, James Merritt Ives, left behind an unsurpassed record of the age. If these “Printmakers to the American People” could have chosen a third partner from the next generation, they would doubtless have picked the late Harry T. Peters, greatest of all Currier & Ives collectors, once described as “the best publicity man the firm ever had.” His vast collection, from which this selection comes, will be on exhibit all this summer at the Museum of the City of New York, to which a large part of the total has recently been donated.
Children, sometimes so neat, polite, and circumspect as to challenge belief, heavily populate the world of Currier & Ives. If there is war, they wear paper helmets and chase Mother with wooden swords. They mimic their elders with keen observation, ranging from pathos (above) to low comedy (left). America, as travelers from abroad have noted for over a century, is and always has been a child-oriented country. “The youth of America is their oldest tradition,” Oscar Wilde once observed. “It has been going on now for three hundred years.”
No very large gulf separates the humor of Currier & Ives from that of our time. Mark Twain’s comment that “the secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow” seems to have lost no validity. Modern cartoonists still parade mother-in-law and use animals and children to lampoon the times. The old campaigner at left, with the bear replaced by apes, pythons, visitors from outer space, etc., still goes to the wars for modern cartoonists. The Grecian Bend, an early kind of debutante slouch, served Currier & Ives as the Bikini or the various New Looks serve humorists in our times for as Artemus Ward said. “The female woman is one of the greatest institooshuns of which this land can boast.”
An aptitude for gloom was an accepted part of life among the genteel of the Nineteenth Century; and it was part of Currier & Ives’ technique to flatter every buyer into feeling himself one of these well-bred, sorrowing Werthers. Gloom was respectable; it came over on the Mayflower. “Thank God I was never cheerful,” mused Henry Adams. “I come from the happy stock of the Mathers, who, as you remember, passed sweet mornings reflecting on the goodness of God and the damnation of infants.” Everybody knew where the paths of glory led, and no home was complete without a sad moralistic picture, a dying general, or a funeral piece.
A lurid color lithograph of the sinking of the steamer Lexinglon in 1840 (see American Heritage, December, 1954) gave Nathaniel Currier his real start; thousands were sold in the form of handbills, the first illustrated “extra” in history, as Harry T. Peters points out in his biography of the firm. Currier, like modern television, had a professional enthusiasm for disasters of all descriptions, few of which turned out as well for the victims as this charming pair of monochrome prints.
The ice-cream parlor is with us yet, but the deep plush year of 1879, when this charming confection was manufactured, is gone where the woodbine twineth. Politics were nasty and business methods rough and ready, but romance fluttered in a separate, faraway, hopelessly elevated sphere, a world all cupids and blushes, averted eyes and flowers pressed in memory books. A young man might push such a love token as this beneath the door, only to take to his heels. Chance alone decided whether he had picked a peach or a lemon in the Victorian garden of love.
It would have been hard indeed for any Currier & Ives customer, picking over the stock in the store at 152 Nassau Street, not to find something to his taste: patriotic tableaux, battles, city views, statesmen, military heroes, railroad engines, steamboats, trotting horses, “comics,” religious subjects, views of Ireland, pioneers, farm scenes, not to mention “sentimentals.” Prices varied from five to twenty-five cents, with nothing over the three dollars charged for the fine large folios. For the newly married there were domestic pantomimes like the pair at right; for mothers, angelic children in irresistible poses (left). There was a great deal of faintly Byronic fantasy for the excessively romantic, and the business-wise lithographers even put out a kind of mid-Victorian pin-up girl, like the slug-a-bed hussy above.