Cultural Studies
College of Humanities and Social Sciences

The Evolution of a Cultural Icon: Currier & Ives and Twentieth-Century American Culture

Hazel Brandenburg

The Hub (SUB II), 4
April 15, 2007, 08:00 PM to 07:00 PM

Abstract:

Currier & Ives burst on the 19th century scene to become a widely popular consumer item, then went on to become a phenomenon of 20th century American culture. Not only have the prints become valued as 19th century artifacts, but the term "Currier & Ives" has itself become part of the American vernacular, taking on meaning quite apart from the physical objects it originally represented. Between 1834, when Nathaniel Currier opened his lithography business, and 1907, when the firm closed its doors, Currier & Ives produced over seven thousand different prints of which it is estimated that tens of millions of copies sold. Although the heyday of the firm was in the middle decades of the 19th century, Currier & Ives continued to produce new prints in the 1880s and 1890s. Even into the early years of the 20th century, the prints were not particularly rare, valuable, or antique by any true definition. Yet within fifteen years of the firm's closing, Currier & Ives prints began appearing at auction and in antique shops, and by the end of the 1920s, Currier & Ives had been firmly established as a valuable Americana collectible. This dissertation traces the elevation of Currier & Ives prints to iconic status in American popular culture and presents an illuminating case study of how objects take on cultural meaning through their use, circulation, and reinterpretation in new historical moments.

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