Fresh Eyes

It turns out the America portrayed by printmakers Currier and Ives was not all sleigh rides in the snow

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In the early 1990s, international food services giant ConAgra discovered crates full of old, framed prints in the warehouse of a recently acquired subsidiary. The find was soon identified as an extraordinary collection of more than 500 original Currier and Ives prints.

Like most Americans familiar with their work, Bryan Le Beau had long thought of Currier and Ives as creators of nostalgic Christmas views of snow-covered villages and "home sweet home" scenes. When many of the prints were exhibited at ConAgra's Omaha headquarters, Le Beau, chairman of the history department at Creighton University in Omaha, was invited to take a look. Most confirmed his earlier impression, but when he examined others, not on exhibit, including some that satirized immigrants, Native Americans and African-Americans, he saw that the prints provided a unique window into mid-19th-century American life. Thus began the research that formed the basis of his new book, Currier & Ives: America Imagined (published by the Smithsonian Institution Press in November 2001), which makes the case that Currier and Ives charted not only the dreams, enthusiasms and fantasies of Americans but also the nation's biases, ambitions and fears.

Altogether, Currier and Ives' firm created more than 7,000 prints that sold in the uncounted millions of copies—at one point 95 percent of all lithographs in circulation in the United States were theirs. Because of Currier and Ives, mid-19th-century America was documented more completely than any other time and place in history before the widespread use of photography.

It was photography that led to the firm's demise. Social change, too, played a part. The last known prints with the Currier and Ives imprint, covering the Spanish-American War, were issued in 1898.

Some have suggested that Currier and Ives were America's preeminent romantics. Others say the images of the United States the pair peddled abroad amounted to artistic imperialism. Le Beau's view is that Currier and Ives were both of these things. Moreover, the pair helped 19th-century America believe that American resilience would ultimately triumph. It was a service that, then as now, cannot be underestimated.

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