To most people, Currier & Ives are locked together like love and marriage (in the song, at least) — as Frank Sinatra sings, “you can’t have one, you can’t have none, you can’t have one without the other.”
In fact, though, Nathaniel Currier was a successful lithographer long before James Merritt Ives joined the business in 1852. He set up shop in New York City in the 1830′s, and became a national sensation in 1840 when he issued a lithograph depicting the tragic burning of the paddle steamer Lexington (of the 143 passengers on board, only four survived). In this pre-photography era, Currier’s depiction of the disaster — published just three days after the event — sold in the thousands and made Currier a well-known name even before his association with Ives.
As Nathaniel Currier’s business expanded, he added family members to the firm, including his brother Charles. In addition to taking orders for Nathaniel’s firm, Charles was himself a lithographer and ran a separate business of his own, as can be seen from this advertisement which appeared in the New York City Directory of 1862.
Among the prints Charles Currier issued independently is this rare broadside depicting yet another New York boiler disaster.
The Hague Street explosion, which occurred 162 years ago, on February 4th, 1850, killed 64 people and badly wounded 48 others. According to a contemporary newspaper account, ”By the explosion the whole building which was six stories in height was actually lifted from its foundation to a height of six feet and when it reached that elevation it tumbled down crushing in its ruins a vast number. So great was the explosion that fragments of the building were scattered in every direction; the windows in the neighborhood were broken; and a large portion of the front wall of the building was thrown with tremendous force into the houses opposite.” Charles’ illustration graphically conveys the force of the explosion, which is further underscored with a list of the victims’ names.
Not nearly as prolific as his more famous brother, Charles produced less than one hundred prints in his entire career. In the disparaging view of Harry T. Peters (the foremost collector of Currier & Ives prints), Charles “lacked much of the ambition and application by which his brother reached the top of his profession and achieved fame.” Be that is it may, Charles made two invaluable contributions to his brother’s firm. First, with the assistance of Currier & Ives artist Fanny Palmer, Charles invented a new and greatly improved lithographic crayon. And more portentously, it was Charles who introduced his brother (in 1852) to James Merritt Ives — Nathaniel’s soon-to-be partner, who was married to the sister of Charles Currier’s wife.