Friday, October 23, 2020

Visions from the Past – Currier and Ives’ America

Nostalgia… That factor drives much of the current divisiveness that festers across the USA.  Many people, if not most, don’t really like to see major changes that impact or may impact their way of live.  The fact is, that wherever you live, change is always on the horizon and its progression is virtually unstoppable.

Which brings me to my topic for this post… One of my mother’s books that came into my possession when she passed in 1995 is entitled “Currier and Ives’ America”.  It’s “A Panorama of the mid-nineteenth century scene”.  The book which was published in 1952 includes 80 prints in full color.  These 80 prints present a view of American life in the 1800s, albeit sometimes looking through rose colored glasses.  The prints provide glimpses of “the way it was” that are nostalgic, idealistic, unrealistic, and that are often out of tune with today’s views.

There are 20 sections included in this copy of the original Currier and Ives prints.  The above print was published in 1868 and it’s entitled “The Four Seasons of Life – Middle Age (The Season of Strength). In the book it is preceded by Childhood (The Season of Joy) and Youth (the Season of Love…and its followed by Old Age (The Season of Rest).

FYI, Currier and Ives was a very successful printmaking company that was based in New York City from 1835 until 1907.  The firm produced prints from paintings by talented and often renowned artists as black and white lithographs that were then hand colored.  In this case the artist was Charles Parsons (1821 – 1910) and the talented lithographer was Lyman W. Atwater. (1835 – 1891)

Another series in my book is entitled “Winter Pastimes”.  This particular depiction of winter fun has a lot going on…a sleigh ride, ice skating, sledding and some form of stick ball.  The original lithograph by Frances Flora Bond Palmer was published in 1855. 

Fanny Palmer (1812 – 1876) was an English artist who became quite successful in the USA as a lithographer for Currier and Ives.  She specialized in rural farm scenes, famous American ships, architecture, hunters and Western landscapes.

Other prints in the Winter Pastimes series are: “American Winter Sports” (Trout Fishing “On Chateaugay Lake”); “Ice-Boat Race on the Hudson”, and; “The Sleigh Race”.

This idyllic print is entitled “American Country Life – October Afternoon".  It is yet another Fanny Palmer lithograph and it was first published in 1855.  This print is part of “The Country Gentleman” series in my book.  The others included under American Country Life are “May Morning", Summer's Evening”, and “Pleasures of Winter”.

Lithographic prints could be reproduced quickly and they cost much to create either.  Currier and Ives called itself “the Grand Central Depot for Cheap and Popular Prints” and advertised its lithographs as ‘colored engravings for the people’.  Small works sold for 5 to 20 cents each and the larger versions sold for between $1.00 and $3.00.

Another section in my book is called “Rural Enterprise”.  The colorful and vibrant lithograph shown above is titled “Preparing for Market”.  It was originally published in 1856 and the artist was Louis Maurer. (1832 – 1932) As he lived to be just over 100 years old, this talented German-born American lithographer was the last surviving artist known to have been employed by Currier and Ives.

Currier and Ives not only sold prints from its headquarters, but also via pushcart vendors, peddlers and book stores.  The company also sold wholesale as well as retail.  Outlets were established across the USA and in London England.  Prepaid orders could also be had via the mail…

Another portion of the book is called “Clearing and Tilling”.  Fanny Palmer was the artist who created this lithograph, which is titled “American Farm Yard – Morning” in 1857.  Other titles in this section were titled “American Farm Yard Evening”, “Haying-Time.  The First Load.” and “Haying Time.  The Last Load.”

All Currier and Ives lithographs were produced on lithographic limestone printing plates on which the drawing was done by hand.  The drawings on the plates were copied from original artwork.  It often took more than a week to prepare it for printing.  Each print was pulled by hand.  The prints were hand-colored by a dozen or more women, often German immigrants with an art background.  They worked like an assembly-line…one color to a worker.  They were paid $6.00 for every 100 colored prints.

The section titled “Homes Across the Country” includes this rather striking home in a 1871 print called “A Home on the Mississippi”.  No artist was credited for this print.  Currier and Ives did have some ‘house artists’ on staff plus not all of the art used for the companies lithographs are credited for one reason or another.  In Fanny Palmer’s case, a number of her works weren’t signed around the time of her husband’s death.

There is a lot going on in this print.  Carriages in motion, couples visiting, a steamboat coming along the river…and 4 black Americans walking along the road.  The Civil War had ended only 6 years earlier.

By way of contrast, “The Pioneer’s Home on the Western Frontier” dated 1867 is also included in the “Homes Across the Country” section.  The remaining 2 prints in this section are “Life in the Country – Evening” by Fanny Palmer and “The Western Farmer’s Home”.

Currier and Ives published at least 7,500 lithographs in the company’s 72 years of operation.  Artists produced 2 to 3 new images every week for 64 years! (1834 – 1895) More than 1,000,000 hand-colored lithographic prints were produced…

This section is titled: “---And Horses Run Faster”.  For some reason that I’ve been unable to determine, horses in this series are generally referred to as “Cracks”.  In any case, the print shown above is called “Trotting Cracks on the Snow”.  Louis Maurer created this composite scene which was issued in 1858.  Horses are prominently featured in many of the Currier and Ives prints and of course they should be.  They provided the main means of transportation and if you didn’t have at least one horse you were very poor indeed.

Interestingly enough, horses were such a big deal when this print was published that all 11 horses in the picture are named.  They are: Pocahontas, Lancet, Prince, Grey Eddy, General Darcy, Flora Temple, Lantern, Lady Woodruff, Brown Dick, Alice Grey and Stella.  At one time Flora Temple held the record for a mile in 2.19 and 3/4ths.    

Then of course…speed became a factor.  If a driver were overtaken on the road, a “brush for the lead” frequently ensued.  It wasn’t long before race tracks sprung up and these races were a standard feature at the fairs which were held in the fall.  ‘Knocking off the seconds’ in horse racing became a national interest!   

This is another lithograph featured in the “---And Horses Run Faster” segment.  “Trotting Cracks at the Forge” was published in 1869.  In this case, a famous cartoonist and artist named Thomas Worth provided the sketch upon which the print is based.  The 3 horses in the blacksmith’s shop are though…Mountain Boy, Grey Eagle and Lady Thorn.

Note: A large folio original lithograph (19.25” x 29.25”) of “Trotting Cracks at the Forge” sold at an October 11th auction for $9,500!

Now onto “Pleasures of the City”!  In this case, the city featured was Currier and Ives home base, New York City.  Those folks with the necessary means, (status and financial wherewithal), got out and about.  It was really for social entertainment as well as to see and be seen.  This particular lithograph is titled “Speeding on the Avenue”.  The scene is alleged to be set along the Harlem River.  That bridge in the distance is called the High Bridge or the Aqueduct Bridge.  It was completed in 1848 and today it is still being used by pedestrians and bicyclists.

The print was published in 1870.  John Cameron, (1828 – 1876), a Scottish American artist created this print and many others, with an emphasis on horses.  To view many examples of Cameron’s work, you can just go to     

This lithograph titled “Wild Duck Shooting – A Good Day’s Sport” is part of a grouping that’s labeled “Hunting Becomes a Sport”.  The original painting was completed by Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait (1819 – 1905) and the lithograph itself was published in 1854.  Tait became an important British/American artist, best known for his wildlife paintings.  One of his paintings sold in 2006 for $167,300!

The other prints in this section of the book include: “American Hunting Scenes – A Good Chance”; “Life in the Woods – Starting Out”, and; “Life in the Woods – Returning to Camp”.  While hunting and fishing were still survival necessities in the Western USA, in the East both activities were already transitioning to the point where they were being considered as a sport.   

One section of the book is simply titled “Protecting the Property” and it includes 4 prints that all fall under the general label of “The Life of a Fireman”.  They each have sub-titles.  This one is “The Fire”.  The first one is “Night Alarm”, the second “The Race” and the last one is “The Ruins”.  All 4 of these original drawings were completed by Louis Maurer.  An original large folio 2-stone hand-colored Currier and Ives lithograph of “The Fire” recently sold for $4,750.

In the 1800s, fire was a huge threat to any city.  Fire departments were usually volunteer operations and fire service and fire equipment were often paid for via customer subscription.  Fire-fighting equipment were painted in elaborate schemes and were given fanciful and romantic names.  It wasn’t until the around the mid-1840s when fire hydrants were installed in New York City.  Volunteer firefighters were still the norm in the city until 1866 when they were replaced by professionals.

This print is titled “Yosemite Valley – California” and it was published in 1866.  The scene, which depicts an encampment of Native Americans, was published just 3 years before the last spike was driven for the transcontinental railroad.  Note Bridal Veil Falls in the distance.  Of course today Yosemite is one of our most popular National Parks.  It suffered through 4,500,000 visitors in 2019.  I couldn’t determine who the original artist was for this piece. 

Note: Copies of the Yosemite Valley prints taken from the same book that I have can be purchased on-line starting at $15.00 and up…some nicely framed too.

Other lithographs in this section include: “The Great West”; “The Route to California”, and; “Through to the Pacific”.  It’s notable but not surprising that except for the Yosemite Valley print, all of the others feature the newly completed railroad.  Of course they were published in 1870 and 1871 after the transcontinental railroad was completed. 

Because I really like trains and because this 1871 lithograph/print is so colorful, I just had to include it in this post to my blog site.  It shows the brightly colored locomotive chugging along the Truckee River through the Sierra Nevada Mountains on its way to San Francisco.

Then there is another section of the book that is simply called “Steel Ribbons Unwind”, and it’s all about the railroads. “The Rail Road Suspension Bridge” by Charles Parsons is the earliest of the group.  It was published in 1856.  An original small portfolio version of this lithograph recently sold for $1,600.  At least 50 railroad prints were published by Currier and Ives over the years. 

The Rail Road Suspension Bridge soared over the Niagara River and the river gorge just downstream from Niagara Falls. (The Falls are visible in the distance) It was engineered by the same company who designed the Brooklyn Bridge and it connected New York State in the USA to Ontario Province in Canada.  This bridge stood across the river from 1855 to 1897.  It was the world’s first working railway suspension bridge.

This is another of the prints included within the “Pleasures of the City” section of my book.  “A Night on the Hudson – Through at Daylight” was designed by none other than Fanny Palmer.  Curiously, this lithograph was published in 1864, although the 405 foot long steamboat Issac Newton suffered a boiler explosion in 1863, killing 9 people, and was no longer in service.  Actually, the Francis Skiddy suffered 2 disasters, one in 1861 when she collided with another ship.  A boiler explosion ensued with 3 of her coal stokers/firemen and 4 passengers killed.  In late 1864 she wrecked again, ending her career.

An 18 inch by 28 inch original lithograph of “A Night on the Hudson” recently sold for $14,000. 

Francis (Fanny) Palmer was one of Currier and Ives best known artists, creating at least 200 different lithographs for the company.  She was also one of the few women who supported her family through her art during the mid-1800s.  Fanny was involved in every stage of the lithographic printing process in some way and she was widely known for her technical skills.  She is credited with assisting Nathanial Currier in the improvement of existing lithographic technology, including Currier’s own lithographic crayon.  

To view a plethora of Fanny Palmer’s works, you can go to    

Under the subject titled “The Main Artery”, all 4 prints in my book relate to life and riverboats on the Mississippi River.  The print shown above was created by Fanny Palmer and it was published in 1868, only 3 years after the end of the Civil War.

While Currier and Ives prints depicted a variety of images of American life beyond the limited offerings from my book.  These included portraits of people, patriotic and historic events, battles of the American Civil War and even Lincoln’s assassination.  However, these prints were also a product of their time in history and many of their prints were inherently racist in nature.  In this print for example, the black residents along the river bank appear happy and content, while living in the shadow of a big plantation house.

Then there is this print from “The Main Artery” section of the book.  “High Water on the Mississippi” was also the creation of Fanny Palmer and it too was published in 1868.  In this case, a group of black Americans are polling along in the flood on the rooftop of a building. 

While today the above images would most likely be labeled as racist, they are mild by comparison if one were to hold them up against Currier and Ives series of prints issued in 1879 called the “Darktown Comics”.  This was an early form of popular culture with the aim of depicting Black life and culture in a less than human manner.  These cartoonish images showed African Americans ‘trying to’ perform basic tasks that were more or less normal for ‘ordinary/white’ folks.

Most of the “Darktown Comics” were the work of Thomas Worth, the same artist who created “Trotting Cracks at the Forge”.  There were about 75 ‘Darktown’ prints created and published between 1879 and 1890.  Originals and reprints are available from many sources even today…

On to more pleasant lithographs… Under the heading “Winds of Trade” Currier and Ives published many a ship print.  These weren’t just any ships, they were the record shattering speedy clipper ships.  This is the “Clipper Ship – Red Jacket”, artist Charles Parsons, and dated 1855.  The subtitle for this print reads “In the ice off Cape Horn, on her passage from Australia to Liverpool, August 1854.

On her first voyage, Red Jacket set the speed record for sailing ships crossing the Atlantic by traveling from New York to Liverpool in 13 days, 1 hour and 25 minutes.  Later, she was outfitted for the Australian immigrant trade.  She completed her first voyage from Liverpool England to Melbourne Australia in just 69 days.  In 1867, she became an Australian and Indian coastal trading vessel, finally wrecking in 1885.

One more clipper ship!  This is the “Clipper Ship Dreadnought off Tuskar Light”.  It is yet another work by Charles Parson.  This medium size clipper ship was built for the “Red Cross Line” which consisted of transatlantic boats that carried immigrants westbound between Liverpool and New York.  The Dreadnought also had a couple of nicknames…The Flying Dutchman and The Wild Boat of the Atlantic.  She averaged 19 days eastbound and 26 days westbound.

Built in 1853, the Dreadnought had quite the career.  It even included a mutiny.  But in 1869, under new owners, she floundered among the breakers at Cape Horn and her captain and crew managed to put ashore on the island of Tierra del Fuego.  Stranded for 17 days and living off the shellfish along the beach, they were finally rescued by a Norwegian vessel.

I’ll end this lengthy post with one more artistic creation by Fanny Palmer.  “Wooding Up on the Mississippi” was published in 1863.  An 18 inch by 28 inch original lithograph of this work recently sold for $17,500.

Of course, reality can be far different than the images we produce and enjoy.  Life along the banks of the lower Mississippi was far from idyllic.  By the middle of the 1800s, there had been over 4,000 fatalities on riverboats due to boiler explosions alone.  While the Princess shown in the print above was said to be the fastest paddle steamer on the river, it was also one of the most elegant.  However, on 2/27/1859, as she pulled away from a wharf at Baton Rouge Louisiana, her boilers violently exploded.  The steamer and its cargo were completely destroyed and at least 200 of the passengers were killed or missing.  Many others were badly injured.  Note: Newspapers of the time didn’t report the number of casualties among the ships enslaved crew…

I hope that you enjoyed this look back at America…albeit through rose colored glasses.  The images are generally enjoyable and calming.  But change was definitely at work and old ways were disappearing.  Conflict was part of reality.  Like now, we will persevere and as a nation, we will be stronger due to our unavoidable progression into the future.

I guess I could sell my book couldn’t I?  At $5 an image, I could pick up $400 and some on-line sales pro could probably turn a nice profit on the purchase.  Just a thought...not happening.

Just click on any of the photos to enlarge them…

Thanks for stopping by for a visit and special thanks if you actually read through my verbiage!

Stay Safe and Take Care, Big Daddy Dave


  1. I always enjoyed their work and calming is surely needed.

  2. Beautiful images of old days...
    thank you for your well written summary.... I enjoy to read it.

    Yes, life change over times.... 15 years staying in the USA, I experienced a lot of changes.

    Have a wonderful weekend

  3. Dave, I did enjoy this tour of the Currier and Ives book inherited from your late mother, which is certainly a treasure for the wonderful illustrations. Fanny Palmer was certainly a prolific artist and depiction of the Princess riverboat was a beauty. As my husband is a retired firefighter and fellow train aficionado, those sections of the book would also appeal to him. Thanks for your very detailed and informative post telling stories about the artists and the lithographs. I so much enjoy seeing photos of the past and sometimes nostalgia can be very comforting, especially now.

  4. I spent WAY too much time trying to determine the origin of "crack" for horses. I also could find nothing! :-(