Monday, June 15, 2020

Lowering the curtain on the Currier & Ives Darktown Prints

I own a business which sells images of the past. Many of them are decorative or interesting in their own right, but to me one of the most important things about the old prints we sell is that they are historic artifacts. That is, they are evidence from our past, bringing their stories to the present. They tell us not only about the things they show, but also about what was of interest to the public at the time—-or at least what their publishers thought would be of interest—-and they tell us how the public at the time saw its world.

Past public attitudes are not always ones we agree with, nor even condone, but I have long argued that it is a mistake to ignore or trash historic artifacts that reflect beliefs we do not agree with. As George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” That is, it is crucial for us to learn about our past so that we can try to correct where we have gone wrong. For that reason, even abhorrent historic artifacts should be preserved and studied.

Our modus operandi has always been, that even if I did not agree with what a particular print depicted, we would offer it for sale so that someone interested in it—-hopefully for historic reasons—-could have access to it. On that basis, though I abhor the social implications of the Currier & Ives Darktown prints, I have felt it appropriate to have my shop offer them for sale. I no longer feel that to be the case.

So, what are the Currier & Ives Darktown prints? They are a series of prints which America’s most successful popular printmaker made from the late 1870s into the 1890s, showing supposedly humorous episodes in Darktown, a segregated community of black Americans. Darktown prints showcased a full array of negative stereotypes of the former slaves who moved north after the Civil War. Portrayed as mentally slow, physically grotesque, and morally oblivious, African Americans were shown as comically inept in their attempts to “play-act” at being white.

Horrifyingly, these prints were among the most popular of all Currier & Ives prints, with one image supposedly selling as many as 73,000 copies. Why that was so and what it means are things worth trying to understand, and there have been institutions and scholars who have approached the Darktown series in this way. I think that is important for our understanding of our past and also of our present to look at these issues.

This then raises the question of why I have decided we would no longer sell the Darktown prints. Certainly, to simply sell such a print is not to advocate for its racist message; we have sold them for many years despite the fact that I think what they show is terrible. As it happens, almost all of the Darktown prints we have sold have been to academic institutions or to African American collectors. Still, I now believe we should not be selling them at all.

The current national reexamination of our society’s racial inequities has made me rethink how we should treat these prints. I have come to believe that even if one does not present them as something one believes, racist images like these should not be presented to the public, except in a clearly restricted historic/educational venue. To have images like these out in public-—on display in a shop, at a show or on the internet—-creates a social environment which is detrimental to universal racial equality.

The point is that it is not what you mean by selling the prints, it is what they show and how that adds to the negative experience that African Americans have in our society. This is very similar to the issue of the display of Confederate statues in the South, and as I believe those statues should be taken out of public spaces, so too I believe the Darktown prints should be removed from public display. Every image that is out in public showing how in the past Blacks were thought of as inferior adds to the background noise insidiously whispering that they are not equal today. Their display, even if not meant this way, reminds both Blacks and Whites that in the not too distant past it was the social norm that the latter considered themselves to be superior to the former. This, in effect, becomes part of the systemic message of racial inequality that still permeates our country.

We need to effect many changes to bring about true racial equality in our country, both as a society and as individuals, and I think no longer selling or displaying the Darktown prints is something we can do to help, albeit in a small way. On that basis, we are donating all of our current inventory of Darktown prints to scholarly institutions, taking the images out of the general public environment and relegating them to the vaults of historic institutions. This is surely just a small step toward racial equality, but hopefully it is one of many such small steps our society will now be making.


  1. A very thoughtful essay, which helps me refine my own thinking. Yes, similar thoughts are informing our re-think of antique monuments here in the South.
    Mike McCue

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful discretion, which comes at some financial sacrifice. A meaningful gesture. Think what would happen if all did one thing as substantial as this.

  3. Thank you Chris. Your eloquent explanation does us a service. I agree, preserve the prints for appropriate study in museum/educational settings, but do not display them to the general public.

  4. Bravo, Chris. In 2012 you wrote a couple of complimentary posts about my C&I article in Imprint and I should have thanked you for that. Your essay here is quite wonderful and I salute you for your inspired words. Hazel

  5. This is so well done. I saw some Darktown prints when I was at an antique store with my kids. I took a picture and wanted to email the shop owners an explanation as to why it's not ok for kids to see this. I love the idea of donating them to a local university; there is one less than 2 miles from the shop. I'll also be including a link to this blog. Thanks for the honesty and doing your part to not perpetuate a disgusting part of American history.

  6. A compelling essay. I just learned about the prints while flipping through the 1923 auction catalogue of William Whiting Nolen’s collection, which included 1,000+ Currier and Ives prints! Thank you.