A Currier & Ives catalog of the 1870s explained that long experience in the lithography trade had made the company "thoroughly acquainted with the wants of the Public, and the best methods of producing good pictures at a small expense." The prints were not, of course, made on the premises of the busy retail shop but in a "factory" around the corner on Spruce Street, first at No. 2 (an address the company used as the sole imprint on certain political cartoons--lest someone think the Currier & Ives firm partisan) and then at No. 33, until the dissolution of the venerable concern in 1907.
No. 33 Spruce Street was a five-story factory building, of which Currier & Ives had leased the third, fourth, and fifth floors for producing what another catalog called, "The Best, the Cheapest, and the Most Popular Pictures in the World." The third floor was devoted entirely to hand-powered printing presses based on the Senefelder prototype, and several more of them were set up in the midsection of the fourth floor, which had its Spruce Street side, or front, given over to facilities for preparing proper drawing surfaces on the lithograph stones. Called "graining," this process was full-time work at Currier & Ives for one man, who had to remove all traces of any previous lithograph on the stone and ultimately produce an even-textured, almost velvety surface that would "take" every nuance of the various crayons used by a lithographer. Basically this was accomplished by grinding one flat stone against another in a circular motion while gradually reducing the coarseness of sand grains sprinkled between the two stones. The rear, or north side, of the fourth floor, where the light was better, was the domain of the artists, lithographers, and letterers.
Most of the best-known artists associated with the Currier & Ives firm over the years were not native Americans nor full-time employees. Only English-born Frances (Fanny) Flora Bond Palmer, whose artistic capabilities ranged from rural American scenery to Mississippi River steamboats, from domestic architecture to flower arrangements, was on the payroll any great length of time--some thirty years. Nathaniel Curriers early associate Napoleon Sarony, who was born in Canada and excelled at historical pictures, left the firm in 1846 to form his own company with Henry B. Major, another Currier employee. At the beginning of the Civil War, German-born Louis Maurer, blessed with a gift for drawing horses and figures, parted with Currier & Ives after eight years to join Major & Knapp, successors to Sarony, Major & Knapp when Sarony sold out his interests and departed for Europe. Charles Parsons, best known for the famous "Central Park--Winter, The Skating Pond," was brought to this country from England as a child and apprenticed to Endicott & Company, a lithography firm established in 1828. During his thirty years at Endicott, Parsons also handled work, especially marine prints, farmed out to that company by Currier & Ives. In 1863 he became head of the art department at Harper & Brothers, where he employed Thomas Worth, who made his first sale of a drawing directly to Nat Currier. Worth seems to have been the largest single contributor to the Currier & Ives list, having originated almost all of The Darktown Series. The remaining artists of note among the regulars--Englishman Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait, highly regarded for his scenes of hunting and fishing in the Adirondacks; George Henry Durrie, without peer in the limning of winter farm life in New England; and James E. Butterworth (also English), who specialized in marine paintings--were never directly employed by Currier & Ives but sold paintings individually for reproduction.
The Currier & Ives lithographers, whose job it was to recreate selected sketches and paintings on the stones from which they were to be printed, shared the north side of the fourth floor at No. 33 Spruce Street with the artists. Their role in producing salable lithographs was an exacting one. Duplicating an oil painting on a textured stone surface--in reverse--with greasy, black crayons of varying thickness and hardness was a task that permitted few mistakes and hardly any erasures. Even accidentally touching the stone with a sweaty fingertip could leave an impression sure to appear as a smudge in the finished print. Nevertheless, lines gone astray in unimportant areas of a design could be scraped from the stone, but it was not possible to rethink a line, remove it, and then redraw it. A serious mistake meant that the stone had to be reground. Some of the regular artists, like Louis Maurer and Fanny Palmer, were expert lithographers as well, but generally the job of putting a drawing or painting "on stone" called for talents beyond the mere artistic--such as patience, concentration, and a steady hand. Even a small stone was likely to take longer than a week to prepare for printing.
The entire fifth floor of the Currier & Ives factory was devoted to brightly hand-coloring the black-ink lithographs produced on the third and fourth floors. The work was in the skilled hands of a supervisor and a dozen or so talented young immigrant girls (mostly German) with some kind of earlier artistic training. They were seated at arms length from each other at long worktables, and each young lady was instructed to apply a single color to a print in all the areas it was to appear before sliding it along to the next girl--and the next color. Eventually the evolving picture would reach a senior colorist entrusted with handling the most difficult passages, who would also touch up earlier work where necessary. There was always a model print to follow that the original artist or Fanny Palmer had colored to the satisfaction of one of the partners. However, this assembly-line process was restricted to producing the cheaper small- and medium-sized prints, and in times of heavy demand its output could be significantly increased. For instance, in rushing to get a Civil War battle scene on the market while the news was still fresh, a back-up force of less-skilled girls was called in to apply preliminary coloring by stenciling washes over broad areas--a line of boldly charging Union troops might have all their uniforms colored blue in one brushstroke! The effects of these washes were supplemented by the regular girls, who would more carefully paint the prominent figures and add touches of bright color to battle flags, bleeding wounds, and muzzle blasts before passing the print on to the finisher. After all, not much effort could be profitably spent on a product meant to wholesale at just six cents apiece.
The large prints (averaging about two feet by three feet) were always sent out for coloring to well-trained artists who specialized in this work. However, even they were given a fully colored model approved by Currier or Ives to follow. Usually the colorists were given a dozen plain prints at a time, and, at mid-century, the fee to be earned for coloring them was a dollar a dozen. These large prints (done by the firms best artists) generally retailed from $1.50 to $3.00, depending on their complexity or their market, but occasionally they went as high as $6.00. Today, a rare and desirable print such as "The Life of a Hunter. A Tight Fix" would bring over ten thousand dollars if it ever came up at auction.
Nathaniel Currier continued to resist all advice to "modernize" his operation with facilities for actually printing the companys famous lithographs in color. Chromolithography, as the new color process was called, had made great advances in the 1860s, but Currier remained devoted to the hand-coloring that had served the firm so well. After all, Currier & Ives was still Americas most popular printmaker: "our Prints have become a staple article . . . in great demand in every part of the country." "In fact," as a catalog of 1872 boasted, "without an exception, all that we have published for the past thirty-eight years (and they comprise several thousand) have met with a quick and ready sale."
In 1872, Currier & Ives gave up is retail shop of thirty-four-years duration for smaller quarters at 125 Nassau Street. Two years later, the firm had moved into 123 Nassau, and, three years after that, in 1877, it was operating out of 115 Nassau, where it remained for another seventeen years. In 1880, Nathaniel Currier, then sixty-seven years old, retired from the famous company founded by him nearly fifty years earlier. The prosperous half-century he had spent in lithography also had been a period of fantastic development and change for the hundred-year-old American republic. Its westernmost frontier had moved in that time from the Missouri River all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The population of a still-growing America had more than tripled--from fifteen million to fifty million. New York, the nations largest city, had burgeoned from 300,000 to 1,200,000 inhabitants. To reach the Pacific coast shortly after Currier opened his shop was a journey that consumed months, whether by prairie schooner across the Great Plains or, in the 1850s, by noble clipper ship around the Horn; in 1880 it took only six days by transcontinental railroad. Up to 1835, there had been no such thing as illustrated news; no quick way for the man in the street to grasp the horror of a distant catastrophe; no way that the urban mechanic could easily picture what a buffalo looked like (or a Mississippi River sidewheel steamboat); no way for a matron of modest circumstances to afford a colorful print for her parlor; no easy way for a Middle Border schoolmarm to help her pupils visualize the exciting events of our nations founding. However, Nathaniel Currier had a hand in changing all of that.
"Old Hickory" was still President when Currier launched his series of "Cheap and Popular" prints--the first colorful and artistic pictures a Jacksonian "common man" could ever afford to own. The simple nature and wide variety of these prints over the years incidentally schooled our citizens in what it meant to be American. Curriers dramatic historical pictures brought to life for everyone the stirring highlights of Americas proud beginnings (as well as contemporary battles of the Mexican and Civil wars). His innovative political banners effectively met the widespread publics need to know what its leading presidential candidates looked like, and the companys topical cartoons offered (as they were advertised) a democratic selection of "hits at the weak points of all the candidates, policies and parties." The many city and landscape views issued by Currier & Ives presented Americans with a wide-ranging panorama of the manmade and natural wonders of their remarkable country; and the clipper ship, locomotive, steamship, and yacht prints testified to the American genius for inventing and perfecting, and to their love of speed. There were also bucolic scenes of planting and harvest, reminding the harried city-dweller of mans natural (and more perfect?) state; as well as provocative prints of Barnum freaks and notorious entertainers like Lola Montez, tempting the bumpkins to visit the "sinful" city; and "Comic Colored Pictures" that would "drive away the blues, and promote health by hearty and wholesome laughter." The sportsman or armchair adventurer was treated to sylvan scenes of comradeship and hunting in the Adirondacks, to jolly fishing trips on Long Island Sound, to prints of important horse races and other sporting events, and to the romance of panning gold in the Sierra Nevada and of following our westward expansion through lands roamed by wild Indians and buffalo. The ladies were offered a wide selection of tasteful flower and fruit pictures to ornament the dining room, and awesome landscapes for the parlor; they were kept abreast of the latest styles on Fifth Avenue by fashion plates, and had their moral sensibilities touched by a steady outpouring of religious and temperance prints and by gentle scenes that called to mind their innocent childhoods.
Nathaniel Currier had retired at a time when there was yet some justification in the boast that Currier & Ivess "Celebrated Mammoth Catalogue" offered "The Best, the Cheapest, and the Most Popular Pictures in the World." Although undated, this catalog was issued from the 115 Nassau Street address of 1877 to 1894, and it still presented a grand total of 1,412 different prints. There are later catalogs bearing the companys next address, 108 Fulton Street, but by then the swell of popular demand that Currier & Ives had ridden so skillfully was well past its crest. Even at the peak of the firms success, a wave of the future was building rapidly, a wave that eventually washed away the old underpinnings of the hand-colored lithograph. It was not a tidal wave that arrived without warning; its signs were clearly visible for a long time. Currier had had them pointed out more than once, but perhaps most poignantly in an incident reported to Harry T. Peters by Ivess son Chauncey. One day in the 1860s, Curriers old friend P. T. Barnum strode into 152 Nassau Street with the midget Tom Thumb perched on his shoulder, a sure way to attract the publics attention. Barnum was there to discuss a new lithographed portrait of his tiny sideshow attraction to use in promotion. In the middle of the conversation, Thumb interrupted: "Barnum," he said, "I have a better idea. Lets go uptown to Saronys, and Ill pose for a photo. He does all the big boys, and these old lithos are out of date."
Indeed, during the late 1860s photographic portraits by Mathew Brady, Napoleon Sarony, and others had become a social necessity, and a collecting mania for carte-de- visite photographs of the famous was well underway. At his death in 1896, Napoleon Sarony, the most fashionable portraitist of the time, left a collection of 40,000 photographs of actors and actresses, not to mention 170,000 portraits of notables in other fields. Earlier, in the 1850s, another exciting invention of growing popularity had entered the market, a device that caused especially paired photographs to appear in three dimensions when viewed through its eyepiece. By 1863, one firm, E. & H. T. Anthony & Company, offered more than 1,100 examples of Americas famous sights and natural wonders for viewing by stereoscope, or stereopticon. Also in the 1850s, lively illustrated periodicals began to appear with wood-engravings more timely, more numerous, and more skillfully done than ever before--magazines like Harpers and Gleasons Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion and Frank Leslies Illustrated Newspaper. The significant advantages still held for a time by Currier & Ives prints in portraiture, scenic views, and pictorial coverage of the news were their vivid coloring and low price. However, these final attractions were greatly diminished by the perfecting of chromolithography in the 1860s and rapid improvements in steam-powered printing, which by 1871 had brought forth a press capable of 1,800 impressions per hour.