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David and Art - A Christmas Scene from the 19th Century

Sofie Hernandez-Simeonidis

Many of our traditional images of Christmas come from a New York print shop in the second half of the 1800s.

It sure didn’t seem like a high point in American culture at the time. But in 1978, Arby’s—the roast beef sandwich place—gave away glasses featuring Victorian era Christmas scenes of snowy fields, sleighs pulled by horses, and warm homesteads. I have a memory of holding a new one of those glasses in my hand like it was some sort of family heirloom as I ate my beef and cheddar.

Since the middle of the 19th century, the phrase “Currier and Ives” has called to mind a particular kind of illustration and, often, a particular image of Christmas. Even if composer Leroy Anderson’s 1948 Christmas classic “Sleigh Ride” didn’t mention the duo by name (which it does), that song would still evoke nothing as much as festive Currier and Ives winter scenes that were published 150 years ago.

Nathaniel Currier was born in Massachusetts in 1813 and became an apprentice at a Boston print shop. By 1835, he had moved to New York and gone into the printing business for himself. For a short time, he mostly took on jobs like sheet music and handbills but really wanted to choose his own images.

His partner James Ives was born in New York City in 1824. As a child he was a gifted, self-taught artist, but in 1850 at age 26 signed on with the Currier Lithograph Company as a bookkeeper. Soon he was overseeing the entire business side of the shop. His artistic talents were not left on the shelf however, and even as he managed the finances, he quickly became the artistic eye of the company.

He had an uncanny ability to sense what images people would like and which artists could depict them best. Soon he was interviewing artists for jobs and assigning them images.

Among those Ives hired was Frances Flora Palmer, the first woman in the United States to make a living as a professional artist. She’d been born in England in 1812 and immigrated to Brooklyn in the 1840s. By the 1860s she was one of Currier and Ives’ most prolific artists.

Nathaniel Currier died in 1888, followed by Ives in 1895, but the company stayed in operation until 1907, ultimately producing more than 1 million prints of more than 7,000 individual pictures. These artists made an
indelible impression on American culture, and not a small effect on what we today think of as a “traditional” Christmas. One suspects they would have been happy to have their art appear on glasses available at a fast-food restaurant, especially at Christmas time.