Monday, February 28, 2011

The Dark Side of Currier & Ives

by Stephen J. Gertz

When we think of Currier and Ives we think of scenes like the above, The Road - Winter by Otto Knirsch, published by C&I in 1853, and now ubiquitously found on Christmas and greeting cards, postage stamps, and calendars. It is one of many enduring images published by Nathaniel Currier and James Merrit Ives that have become deeply embedded in the American psyche, each a slice of warm toast that make all Americans feel good, sentimental, and nostalgic for bygone days. They are all easily digestible.

Outside of collectors and curators, however, few are aware that between 1879 - 1890 Currier & Ives issued a series of color lithographs embracing all the worst stereotypes about Black Americans. Its Darktown series was, in fact, one of Currier & Ives' best-sellers, one print alone selling an astounding 73,000 copies.

 The prints in the Darktown Series feature the full array of negative stereotypes about American Blacks in the post-Civil War period and underscore the American tradition of reducing Blacks to buffoonish cartoon characters. As such, this rare compilation bears painful, vivid testimony of the racial attitudes of white, middle class Americans during this time. That the series was one of Currier & Ives'  - "Printmakers to the People" - most popular speaks reams.

While most of the seventy-five prints in the series - Black Americans at the racetrack, playing football, baseball, as firemen, etc., are unsigned, enough are (and stylistically similar to unsigned) to reasonably conclude that Thomas Worth and John Cameron were the artists responsible for the designs to all plates here collected.

"Thomas Worth (1834-1917), a New York artist, took his first drawing at the age of twenty to Nathaniel Currier and was compensated five dollars...This was the beginning of a long line of work which T. Worth did for the firm... He is mostly credited for his Darktown Series which was one of the firm's most prolific and profitable series. It is known that one print of the Darktown Series sold 73,000 copies" (Kipp, p. 27).

"John Cameron (1829-1862), although he died at the early age of 33, contributed many great prints to the Currier & Ives firm. Scottish by birth, he emigrated to this country and while still a young adult he was quickly recognized for his artistic talents" (Ibid, p. 32).

Currier and Ives did not publish their lithographs in albums. The prints were sold singly, through wholesalers and retailers, including pushcart vendors and door-to-door salesmen, that covered the entire nation down to each home; James Merrit Ives was a management and marketing genius. I recently had this collection pass through my hands; not a collection, really, but a salesman's sample book comprised of forty-one color lithographs from the Darktown series as well as other, similarly racist, Currier & Ives prints.

"Currier and Ives provided for the American public a pictorial history of their country's growth from an agricultural society to an industrialized on. Included in this chronicle of growth were pictures of the nation's black population. Many lithographs by Currier & Ives cast a romantic shadow over thier subjects, from kittens to mischievous children to firemen. That same rosy hue appears in some of thier prints illustrating African Americans, where antebellum plantation life is presented with warm nostalgia, carefully absolved of any unpleasantness. Other, more unusual prints, used the popular medium of lithography to confront issues like abolition. Whether implicit or explicit, lithographs from Currier & Ives now-famous firm offer strong statements on the role of race in nineteenth century American society...

"Creating a segregated community of black Americans, Darktown prints showcased a full array of negative stereotypes of former slaves who moved north after the Civil War. Portrayed as mentally slow, physically grotesque, and morally inept, African Americans became comical figures to the primarily white consumers of Currier and Ives prints. True to the period's nativist overtones, the Darktown series was accompanied by similar prints lampooning Irish and Italian immigrants, as well as Roman Catholics. Popular prints were made to satisfy popular demand; as such, this series bears a painfully vivid testament to the racial attitudes of white, middle-class Americans of the late nineteenth century" (Images of Blacks by Currier and Ives).

Between 1852, when James Merrit Ives joined Nathanial Currier's print business, and 1907, when the firm finally shut its doors, Currier and Ives published over 7,000 separate images yet while the Darktown series and associated racist prints made up only a small percentage of the total, at the time, as best-sellers, they represented a key source of profits. White Americans couldn't get enough of 'em.

Yep, them happy darkies really knew how to have a good time puttin' on airs an' foolishly tryin' to emulate white folk's ways; it's pure comedy, a laugh-a-minute minstrel show presented in color on paper. How could anyone guess that beneath the gloss of high-steppin' uninhibited, de-light, inchoate rage, hopelessness, and grief stirred an abyss of centuries-old degradation?

CURRIER and IVES. [DarkTown Series Salesman's Sample Book]. Forty-One Color Lithographs Depicting Black Americans in the Late 19th Century ]. New York: Currier & Ives, 1879-1890.

First issue prints with full margins, at least 1 1/2 inches. Oblong folio (13 1/4 x 17 1/4 in; 336 x 437 mm). Forty-one original color lithographed prints, some highlighted with hand-coloring and heightened with gum arabic, on heavy paper.

References: Conningham, Currier and Ives Prints: An Illustrated Checklist.  Kipp, Robert. Currier's Price Guide to Currier & Ives Prints.

The Plates (w/Conningham #, date, and artist where signed):

1.  A Kiss in the Dark. (3347).  1881.
2.  Wrecked by a Cow Catcher. (6792).  1885.
3.  As Kind as a Kitten.  (281) . 1879. Thomas Worth.
4.  Jay Eye Sore - De Great World Beater. (3187).  1885.
5.  A Trot, with Modern Improvements. (6162).  1881. Thomas Worth.
6.  A Crack Trotter - "Coming Around." (1283)  1880. Thomas Worth.
7.  Well - I'm Blowed! (6613).  1883.. Thomas Worth.
8.  An Ice Cream Racket - Freezing In. (3023).  1889.
9.  An Ice Cream Racket - Thawing Out. (3014).  1889.
10.  Lawn Tennis at Darktown. A Scientific Player. (3463)  1885.
11.  Lawn Tennis at Darktown. A Scientific Stroke. (3464).  1885.
12.  A Darktown Tournament, - The First Tilt. (1431).  1890. John Cameron.
13.  A Darktown Tournament, - Close Quarters. (1430). 1890. John Cameron.
14.  Grand Football Match - Darktown against Blackville. A Kick off. (2483).  1888.
15.  Grand Football Match - Darktown against Blackville. A Scrimmage. (2484).  1888.
16.  A Foul Tip. (2090).  1882. Thomas Worth.
17.  A Base Hit. (374). 1882. Thomas Worth.
18.  De Tug Ob War! (6246).  1883. Thomas Worth.
19.  Won By A Foot. (6758).  1883. "Kemble - del."
20.  Great Oyster Eating Match between the Dark Town Cormorant and the Blackville Buster.
       The Start - "Now den dont you's be too fresh   wait for de word. (2635).  1886.
21.  Great Oyster Eating Match between the Dark Town Cormorant and the Blackville Buster.
       The Finish - "Yous is a tie - De one dat gags fust. am a gone Coon." (2636).  1886.
22.  A Darktown Law Suit. (1407).  1886. John Cameron.
23.  A Darktown Law Suit - Part Second. (1408).  1887.
24.  A Literary Debate in the Darktown Club.  Settling the Question. (3659).  1884. Thomas Worth.
25.  A Literary Debate in the Darktown Club.  The Question Settled. (3558).  1885. Thomas Worth.
26.  A Darktown Trial - the Judge's Charge. (1432).  1887.
27.  A Darktown Trial - the Verdict. (1433).  1887.
28.  A Surprise Party. (5901).  1883. Thomas Worth.
29.  A Change of Base. (997).  1883. Thomas Worth.
30.  A Penitent Mule, - The Parson on Deck. (4793)  1890.
31.  The Darktown Tally Ho, - Tangled Up.  (1427).  1889. Thomas Worth.
32.  The Darktown Tally Ho, - Straightened Out. (1426).  1889. Thomas Worth.
33.  The Darktown Fire Brigade - All On Their Mettle. (1387).  1889.
34.  The Darktown Fire Brigade - Hook And Ladder Gymnastics. (1388).  1887
35.  The Darktown Fire Brigade - Under Full Steam. (1397).  1887.
36.  "Bustin The Pool." (756).  1889. Thomas Worth.
37.  "A Clean Sweep." (1129).  1889. Thomas Worth.
38.  Two To Go! (6272).  1882. Thomas Worth.
39.  Got 'Em Both! (2453).  1882. Thomas Worth.
40.  Hug Me Closer George! (2983).  1886
41.  When! Shall We Three Meet Again? (6634). No date (c. 1877-1894). 


Lithograph images courtesy of David Brass Rare Books, with our thanks.

Image of Currier and Ives window sign courtesy of The Philadelphia Print Shop.


  1. I'm officially tossing all my treasured cookie tins with Currier and Ives pictures on the lids. This post should have garnered much more attention than it apparently did. Thanks for bringing this dark story to light. Absolutely no pun intended.

  2. This is fascinating! Thank you for bringing it to light. It's interesting how, in the name of political correctness, we tend to hide the things from our past that are 'unpleasant.' We certainly never see these images on Christmas Cards!

  3. In response to anon, while I entirely understand not wanting to think of this every time you reach for a Christmas cookie, it seems to me that it's good to recognize and deal with the co-mingling of the palatable and unpalatable current in most all culture, popular and 'high-brow'. These, and other images (including the popular cookie tin and greetings card scenes) Currier and Ives printed give us an invaluable insight into how America has been shaped, and how it has chosen to represent itself. Just as Lincoln admirers have to deal with the fact that in many speeches he speaks unhesitatingly of white supremacy, and weigh it in the balance with his efforts for emancipation, so we have to recognize the context of these images. Sanitizing history is not an option; that doesn't mean justifying it, but sweeping it out of sight is more dangerous. It's right that we remember the uglier sides of our past (not least because it helps us recognize the uglier sides of our present). As you say, it's good to bring them to light!

  4. It's easy to raise our ire with blatant black racism, and call it a "middle class white" issue. I'd be interested to see C&I's take on the Irish, Italian, and Catholic racism to which you have alluded as well. Did C&I lampoon everyone who was not Protestant Anglo-Dutch? To how thin a slice of America was C&I actually appealing? Were they simply lampooning everything and everyone? Or are our skins perhaps too thin today, and we are too quick to cry 'hatred?'

    1. Pssst! Irish, Italian, and Roman Catholic aren't races.

      And, of course, it was hatred. You don't depict an entire group of people as ignorant, violent beasts out of respect.

  5. No matter how you look at the lampoon "Dark town ", it is still a racist! It also was done in time where the debate around full citizenship and what it implies for "dark" people! The cartoon had for purpose to show that African Americans, while trying to emulate white Americans, are inherently imprepared to be full citizens.
    And i agree ot is something that should be known,the struggle non white people of america had to go through to get what we always take for granted!

  6. Thanks for the detailed review. This information is very useful for me, as a citizen of Ukraine. We in society have many examples of discrimination, unfortunately.

  7. Blacks haven't advanced much since then either..........

    1. Yes that is very true. Wait who is our president?
      bigot - do you need a definition?

    2. Unfortunately I have to agree with "anon" (7/26/13). This is unfortunately the image black culture still gives today, and I have spent a "lifetime" protected from these sort of images. It is not the stereotypes that make the person, the person makes the stereotypes. Perhaps it would be better to keep the images in print, then those could be blamed...

    3. Oh hell no. That stuff is racist AND ridiculous, same words that apply to your reply. I'm sorry you have had bad upbringing and bad experiences. But that doesn't make what Currier & Ives brought to the world in these "Darktown" images any less repugnant. "Unfortunately," you're evidence that our culture still retains so much ignorance and racism.

  8. What's wrong with these pictures. Have you ever been to a section 8 housing tract. Blackville and Darktown look like Mayberry next to the black neighborhoods today. I would say C&I were complimenting blacks.

  9. Currier&Ives were very much pro-abolition and pro-Union in the decades before the Darktown series. Their lithographs portray John Brown as a martyr, and those helping slaves escape north on the Underground Railroad as heroes. Black Union troops were idealized in prints showing them routing "traitors".

    In a way this makes these racist post-war prints even more disturbing. It may provide context to see the anti-Irish or anti-Catholic prints. Perhaps gross stereotyping of racial, ethnic, and religious groups was standard for the day. I'm not defending it, but defending C&I who were just reflecting societal attitudes at the time, and who after all were on the right side of the major social issues of the 19th century.

  10. I must say, I was disturbed when I saw how the prints portrayed Afro-Americans. In retrospect, I thought how the prints could act as a learning tool to remind both black & white people how Afro-Americans in general have made significant socio/economic strides to be part of the fabric of American society.


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