Thursday, December 20, 2007

These Wonderful Things Are the Things We Remember All Through Our (Very Short) Lives

The only trouble with writing about Currier and Ives is that I will now be singing "Sleigh Ride" for the rest of the day. Oh well, 'tis the season.

Anyway. Currier and Ives. They were a nineteenth-century firm that specialized in mass-produced lithographs -- "Publishers of Cheap and Popular Pictures," they called themselves. People generally bought (or otherwise received) their hand-colored prints and framed them for decorative purposes. You probably know them best for their images of fruit bowls, horse races, or idyllic winter landscapes, but they really did all kinds of stuff -- and I do mean all kinds. Because in addition to their clip-arty lithographs suitable for hanging above the mantel, Currier and Ives also had a weird thing about deathbeds:

And okay, if it was just this one, I could see that being a big seller - it was a pretty major event in the lives of many Americans, and a good number of them adored Lincoln.

But it's not just this one. They are legion. The Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection is crawling with images of one famous guy or another languishing as he gasps out his last breath, surrounded by loved ones and colleagues (you may recognize then-vice president Andrew Johnson in Lincoln's picture above).

Here are a few others:

Here's Garfield.

Here's John Quincy Adams, who apparently had no female relatives.

And just so you know, it wasn't specific to presidents.

I'm somehow having a hard time picturing someone actually framing and hanging a deathbed photo like this. If you really loved the figure in question, you'd probably want to commemorate them in the prime of their life. Unless you hated them, I guess, which...maybe you'd want a picture of their death in that event, but Currier and Ives doesn't seem like the sort of agency that caters to the mean-spirited. I mean, they enjoy hunting dogs, and doe-eyed Miss Liberties, and fruit orchards, and sleighs. They don't seem like the sort of people to dance on graves. Even taking into account the Victorian (and earlier) obsession with all things death, it's weird.

My best guess has something to do with the fact that Currier and Ives had a deal with the New York Sun for awhile in which a hand-colored print came with the newspaper once a week. The weekly print was often something that had happened recently - hence the reason for all the Civil War battles and images of ships blowing up. The death of a major historical figure is news, and of course they'd commemorate it somehow.

Just as newswires today have pre-written obituary template stashed away for various notable people, I'm imagining Currier and Ives had a specific deathbed template, just to cut some corners - add the head of the recently deceased, add some appropriately gendered and aged loved ones, and voila.


Andrew Ross said...

Hey, just because they didn't have fancy Nielsen people meters doesn't mean they didn't know what sold. My guess is that the first one sold well, so they kept doing deathbed scenes, and they kept selling well, so they kept doing them. Kind of like People Magazine was with Princess Di for a while after she died.

Kate Dunkin said...

Great post Jess! I was online looking at different Obituary template's and funeral templates when I came across your blog. This is a very interesting post on on things we remember through our lives. Thank you for sharing this with us!