Currier and Ives and the Nostalgic Past

There’s a happy feeling nothing in the world can buy…It’ll nearly be like a picture print by Currier and Ives. These wonderful things are the things. We remember all through our lives…

“Sleigh Ride” by Leroy Anderson, 1948

Currier and Ives has a special place in American society and our memory of the past. The prints made by the 19th century lithography company usually invoke fond memories today, which is exactly what they were designed to do. “Mention Currier and Ives and most people think of images of 19th-century home life — of lovers whispering in each other’s ear; elegant children holding fluffy kittens; idyllic farmhouses set in a snowy landscape,” a 1998 New York Times article wrote when describing a new museum exhibit of their prints. Back in the day Currier and Ives was called “the Grand Central Depot for Cheap and Popular Prints,” though its rare to see original prints in homes today. But, they had an impact on home decoration and our ideas about what a “good home” looked like that I think are still relevant today. There is one print called “The Four Seasons of Life: Middle Age” that I really like, and I think is a good example for understanding the wider world of Currier and Ives.

Wood's wood
Wood’s Wood (New Hampshire), circa 1888. Photo credit: Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Currier and Ives prints were designed with the American middle-class in mind. Scenes reflected their interests- the Civil War, Gold Rush, and other current events; boats, trains, and other transportation, and domestic scenes were typical. My wife Andra recently bought an old book of Currier and Ives prints, and this is exactly what I saw as I was flipping through it. I can imagine that Americans in middle and end of the 19th century really enjoyed these pictures even if they didn’t quite depict what their own lives looked like. A majority of Americans lived in rural places throughout the 19th century (there wouldn’t be more Americans living in urban spaces until the 1920s), and life in the country was tough. Urban life wasn’t pretty either, just ask Lincoln Steffens or Jacob Riis. Far from the ideal pictures you can see in many Currier and Ives prints, farm families (middle-class or not) struggled through hardships like bad crops, harsh climates, and violence. The Library of Congress has a good website on rural life in the 19th century that’s worth checking out. For many Americans, I imagine having Currier and Ives prints helped make the world look a little brighter and comfortable.

nebraska farm
Prairie Settlement, circa 1862-1912. Photo credit: Library of Congress.

Anyways, as I was going through Andra’s Currier and Ives book, one particular print stood out to me: “The Four Seasons of Life: Middle Age.” Like a 1868 version of “Father Knows Best,” it depicts a father and son coming in the front door of his nice house to his loving wife and three other children. His dog has even gotten a hold of his walking stick and is running around the man’s heels excitedly. Out the front door, you can see a neat lawn and beyond that, a scenic river with boats sailing by. The house is clean and inviting, complete with a framed picture on the wall, maybe its their own Currier and Ives print… This looks like the ideal American family in the ideal home.

Four Seasons_color
Photo Credit: Library of Congress

When I first saw this print, it looked really familiar to me but it took me a little while to place it. Then I finally remembered! It was featured in of my favorite histories of advertising, T.J. Jackson Lears’ “Fables of Abundance.” I went back to my copy of this cultural history of advertising and found a great quote about Currier and Ives: “The chromolithographers’ iconography of abundance veered toward titillating exoticism on one hand, sentimental agrarianism on the other. To metropolitan consumers only recently removed from the land, chromolithographers offered reassuring genre scenes, nestling visions of abundance in settings of self-sufficient agriculture and extended kinship ties. They reconstructed a personal past redolent with fantasies of childhood bliss and pre-oedipal harmony [see The Four Seasons of Life: Middle Age] The late-nineteenth century ideal of gemeinschaft- the self-sufficient, organic community- achieved its embodiment in commercial imagery long before it was codified in sociological texts. Like academic theorists, urban chromolithographers re-created a vision of preindustrial life that may have resonated with their own nostalgic memories; the etymological root of nostalgia is “homesickness.” The same incipient media culture that popularized the rhetoric of domesticity in ladies’ magazines also represented the visual embodiments of the domestic ideal: the old home place, the vine-covered cottage, the still point of the turning world. Rootless urban publicists promoted a pastoral ideal of rootedness, containing commercial life’s impact on personal identity by locating abundance in a domesticated rural landscape, awash in associations with maternal nurturance.” (103)

Currier and Ives was trying to cash in on feelings of nostalgia for a happier past. I suspect the Civil War, industrialization, mass migrations of people to and around the United States, and many other factors left some Americans feeling like their whole world was changing faster then they could handle. Maybe having a print like “The Four Seasons of Life” could be a reminder of happier times, or even an inspiration to work harder to make their own lives better (Make America Great Again?). “The educating influence of these works of art can hardly be over- estimated,” wrote the authors of “The American Woman’s Home” (an 1868 guide on all things domestic), ” surrounded by such suggestions of the beautiful, and such reminders of history and art, children are constantly trained to correctness of tote and refinement of thought, and stimulated—sometimes to efforts at artistic imitation, always to the eager and intelligent inquiry about the scenes, the places, the incidents represented.”

Currier and Ives tried to make their artwork available to everyone. First of all, it was affordable. The firm described their artwork as “cheap” in advertising published in big cities and small towns. “Currier & Ives’s stock encompassed a variety of genres and a range of price points, and even the firm’s largest folio prints were not beyond the means of middle-class customers seeking affordable decoration for the walls of their parlors,” one author has written, “such prints were equally popular in more public spaces like taverns and offices.” The authors of “The American Woman’s Home” agreed, encouraging their readers to invest in artwork in the home: “Just here, perhaps, we are met by some who grant all that we say on the subject of decoration by works of art, and who yet impatiently exclaim, ‘But I have no money to spare of for any thing of this sort. I am condemned to an absolute bareness, and beauty in my case is not to be thought of.’ Are you sure, my friend?” (94)

This ad was published in the Weekly Register of Point Pleasant, VA in 1872. Image Source: Chronicling America, Library of Congress.

Prints like “The Four Seasons of Life: Middle Age” were specifically designed to appeal to as many Americans as possible. Prices were kept affordable so that many Americans could afford to have these images in their homes and on walls all over the country. Most importantly, the imagery chosen in each picture was carefully designed to tug at Americans’ nostalgic heart strings. So when you see you see a Currier and Ives print today, don’t think of it as a depiction of life in the 19th century. No, I think they’re really the images of what 19th century Americans thought the ideal life looked like. Well, it seems like Currier and Ives has managed to wedge itself into the American vision of the “good life” even to this day, and their prints are still nostalgic images of a better life, just like they were 150 years ago.

Well, readers, I’ll be honest with you. I’ve been slowly writing this post for about 2 months now, and I’m not quite sure what else I want to say about Currier and Ives. I had a couple of different directions I wanted to take this post in, but I’ve either forgotten exactly what they were or tried to do more than one and realized that it just sounded disjointed and odd. So I’ll just end here with a list of other sources and interesting facts about Currier and Ives and the “Four Seasons of Life” print.

You can find the “Four Season of Life: Middle Age: print at the the Springfield Museums in Massachusetts. They  have one version in color, as well as a black and white version with the same name but a slightly different image. Other Currier and Ives prints can also be found in their catalog, as well as at the Museum of the City of New York and Library of Congress. If you’re interested in the firm itself, the Archives of American Art has the Harriet Endicott Waite collection with lots of good stuff. Here is some biographical information on the C&I artists who worked on the Seasons of Life print, Lyman W. Atwater and Charles Parsons. I found an Art History dissertation by Amber Stitt, American Images of Childhood in an Age of Educational and Social Reform, 1870-1915 (2013) that discusses the Seasons of Life Series, definitely worth a read! Finally, one of my favorite history websites, xroads by the University of Virginia has a good page called “Seeing Through Currier and Ives: The Reality Behind the Nostalgia.” It features the “Middle Age” print prominently! This image has really gotten the attention of a lot of people in recent years. Well, this last paragraphs looks like I just barfed up all my internet research onto the page. It takes some work to get research into a coherent piece of writing!

Currier and Ives Building in New York City, circa 1872-1894. Photo Credit: Archives of American Art.

And if you noticed, there is a poem written beneath the print. Here is the text if you can’t read it:

But as all the hues of summer fade away,

And varying tints, the days of autumn bring;

So life’s Autumnal season, brings its gray,

And cares like ivy, to out pleasures cling.

Sweet cares when home, and loving hearts, are ours.

And loving lips, breathe forth their welcome song;

For them we labor through the passing hours,

And bear our burdens, thankful we are strong.


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