There is perhaps no more iconic American Christmas images than those of Currier & Ives. In this time of carols and old-timey traditions I’m reminded of how ingrained into the American consciousness these 19th century images have become. So for my December Artist of the Month, I thought I would visit this classic of art and illustration.
The nineteenth century in America was a changing time. Immigrants and industrialization were altering the very landscape of America socially and physically. By the mid century what had been regarded as Old America just a generation before, was unrecognizable and the population had nearly doubled. The Industrial Revolution created millions of people living in urban areas and fanning out into the new frontier on railroads. As today, this new economy and population created a longing for an Ideal America, and the money and infrastructure to buy it.
Between 1834 and 1895 the company of Nathaniel Currier and James Ives created millions of images using modern printing technology headquartered in New York City employing an army of engravers and watercolorists. Combined with new railway distribution capabilities this combination made it affordable for every American to have a piece of art in their home for the first time in history. With mail order catalogs these prints could be found on every wall from New York to California. It is difficult to imagine in this current technological culture of ours, where images are ubiquitous on the web, billboards and television, that there was a time where owning an image was a novelty.
The most popular images depicted scenes of Old America. A fantastic imagining of rural New England countrysides that reminded frontier families of the home they had left behind, and immigrants living in tenements an idealized picture of what America promised (A nice colonial house in the suburbs). No smoke stacks or slaughter houses, no child labour, no pollution, coal mines or disease, the American Dream for 25¢ a piece. Images of Christmas were very popular to remind frontiersmen in the far flung territories of the Dokotas and mining towns of the Pacific North West of home.
The firm of Currier and Ives finally closed its doors in 1907 as photography and offset printing in newspapers and illustrated magazines gradually undersold them with nearly free content and a better quality art in the new Golden Age illustrators. Today the prints remind us of a happier time, and by the mid twentieth century the nostalgia of this form of Americana made the prints collectable. Still affordable by antique print standards the originals can be obtained for a few hundred to a few thousand dollars at any reputable print dealer, and true to their slogan, “colored engravings for the people”, today these charming images, now in the public domain, are still found on calendars, posters, prints, coffee mugs, and most of all Christmas Cards.
Enjoy and Happy Holidays!