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Currier & Ives: “Publishers of Cheap and Popular Pictures”

The most prolific American publishers of lithograph prints were Nathaniel Currier and later, James Merritt Ives, who, in a 73-year span, produced over 7,000 images and over one million prints. A wide array of subjects were published including disaster scenes, sports, trains, ships, fire fighters, humor, sentimental images, city scenes, and just about any topic that could be sold to the general public eager to buy inexpensive images with which to decorate their homes. Currier produced his first prints in the mid-1830's, before the advent of photography, and at a time when newspapers of the day did not include pictures.

Prints honoring former Presidents Washington through William Henry Harrison were made by Currier through the early 1840's, but the first true campaign prints appeared in 1844 for James Polk and Henry Clay. For political collectors, the most iconic of the Curriers are the “Grand National Banners” which feature jugate portraits of the candidates. The most common political prints made by the firm are the earliest ones, from the 1844 and 1848 campaigns, and, in general, the later prints tend to be scarcer. Prints exist for every major presidential candidate (and a few minor party candidates) starting in 1844, with the last of the campaign prints being made for the Hayes and Tilden campaign in 1876 even though Currier & Ives would remain in business until 1907.

All prints were hand colored at their print shop in New York, or sent out to contract artists, and workers were paid a few cents per print for the coloring process. The standard small folio prints were then sold to the general public for around twenty cents each.

Currier & Ives prints can often provide collectors a relatively inexpensive opportunity to add an attractive item to their collection from a candidate for whom little is attainable. Prints in reasonably decent condition from the 1844-1856 campaigns can be bought for as little as $200-300. A Lewis Cass campaign print (a candidate for which little is available) can fill a big hole in a collection for under $450. However, several Currier & Ives campaign prints from the 1860 and 1864 campaigns have exceeded the $10,000 level in recent auctions.

As is true with everything, condition is critical. Printed on cheap paper and usually framed with crude wood backings, Currier & Ives prints tend to be found discolored and damaged, so those few prints in exceptionally choice condition should command a premium.

It's not unusual to find a framed Currier & Ives campaign print at an antique store or show. A few years ago, I scored a Cass & Butler in excellent condition at an antique shop down the street for $150. Poking around the antique shops in Chico, California, I found a large format Stephen Douglas Currier & Ives for $100.

Happy hunting, and may you find that elusive Lincoln and Johnson “Grand National Banner” at your local flea market this weekend.

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