This well considered article looks at the role that Currier & Ives played in the American public’s consciousness in the 1920s. I have written several times over the years about how my particular fascination with antique prints concerns their role as cultural artifacts, both how and why they were made and how they were understood and used by the public. Dr. Hazel Brandenburg’s article takes this exact approach.
The decade of the 1920s was “a time of significant social disruption occasioned by the broad sweeps of urbanization, technological change, and the development of a new powerful mass culture.” (all quotes are from Brandenburg’s article in Imprint, Volume 37, No. 1) This general social unease led to a turning away by the American public from foreign influences and the “promotion of all things American.”
This social focus on Americana, though, was not on the unsettled and confusing modern America, but rather looked to America of years gone by. “Uncomfortable with the present and anxious about the future, Americans turned their eyes to the past—-or at least to a particular vision of an American past that seemed more authentic, uncomplicated, and pure.”
One of the reflections of this societal concentration on early America was an increase in interest in American antiques, where Americana collecting came to seen as “a patriotic endeavor.”
In the 1920s, there was a surge in interest in Currier & Ives prints, with these paradigm pieces of Americana increasingly being listed in shop inventories, advertisements and auctions, some of the latter of which almost exclusively consisted of this firm’s output.
This is all clearly and insightfully explained (in much more interesting detail) in the Imprint article, and this is just the type of thing I find fascinating. The article, though, resonated with me especially in the way it rings sympathetic notes with research I had done on an analysis of the differences between the Original and New Best 50 Currier & Ives lists which had been made-up, respectively in 1932-33 and 1991.
In the article I wrote based on that analysis (In Currier & Ives. The New Best 50. American Historical Print Collectors Society, 1991), I looked at the differences between the types of subjects that were popular with Currier & Ives aficionados from the 1930s and those from six decades later. I think many of the same feelings Brandenburg’s article discusses for collectors in the 1920s were still active in the ‘30s, and her work shines new light on what I had found previously.
There were actually two lists for each period, one for large folio prints and one for small folio prints, but in both cases there was more popularity for historical prints in the Original prints versus the New prints. This was especially pronounced with the small folio lists. In the Original Best 50 small folio list there were 13 historical prints, over a quarter of the list. In the New Best 50 small folio list there was only one historical print, a mere 2% of the New 50.
Brandenburg’s article, I think, helps explain why these Revolutionary War and early American history prints were so popular early in the twentieth century. As she wrote, “Uncomfortable with the present and anxious about the future, Americans turned their eyes to the past—or at least to a particular vision of an American past that seemed more authentic, uncomplicated, and pure.” It was the early settlers and the founding fathers who expressed in clear terms what American was about, not the complicated issues and uncertainties of the Civil War, so it was these idealized prints which fit the American public’s mood at that time.
Today, in contrast, I think that while we still have an idealized vision in our heads of what life was like in the simpler past, we no more see the founding of this country as such a clear-cut noble and pure event. Instead, the approach to our history that most collectors have today is for authenticity rather than nostalgia.
There is much more to chew on by looking at tastes for Currier & Ives prints now, early in the last century, and of course at the time they were issued. Hazel Brandenburg’s "Re-Presenting the Past: Currier & Ives in 1920s America" is a really nice addition to the literature on this subject and well worth a read.