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America On Stone
Nineteenth Century Popular Lithographs

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Popular Lithographs

Popular decorative lithographs made their first American appearance in the 1820s, but by the middle of the century, lithography had transformed the role of art in America. Before the advent of lithography in America, the general public had little art in their lives. Prints intended for display, produced by woodcut or engraving, had a long history, but these prints were generally expensive and limited in distribution to the social elite. Lithography allowed for the production, in large numbers, of inexpensive and often colorful prints which could be purchased by the general public for display in their homes, at work, and in their places of leisure. By the second half of the century, many homes, taverns, shops, and offices were decorated with these cheap and colorful prints on myriad subjects of interest to the public. Whereas at the beginning of the century most Americans had little access to art in their life, by the end of the century, popular art was ubiquitous in the lives of most Americans.

It was a lithographic business from New York City, Currier & Ives, that had the greatest impact in this Democratization of art. Currier & Ives' output of popular art was vastly larger than any other firm; the number of prints they published may be as great as that of all the other American lithographers of popular prints combined. However, there were a large number other American firms issuing wonderful popular lithographs in the nineteenth century. From a beginning of just a few small lithographers on the east coast in the 1820s, by the end of the century American lithography was represented by hundreds of businesses located in most major cities in the country, coast to coast. Some of these business had but a fleeting existence, with few prints produced, while others, like the Kellogg firms from Hartford, lasted for years and issued hundreds and sometimes thousands of popular prints.

All of these printmakers and their lithographs had an impact on the lifes of Americans in the nineteenth century. The subjects of these prints covered every conceivable topic of interest, including portraits, historical events, disasters, flowers, animals, sports, American and foreign views, ships, American progress and expansion, comical themes, and religion. These prints offer us a unique window on our past. They show us the interests, fashions, activities, buildings, machines, and many aspects of life in America in the nineteenth century. They are accurate in many ways and idealized in others, depicting America both as it was and how Americans at the time wished it was. They were so much a part of the fabric of nineteenth century life, that without some knowledge of what these prints were like, our understanding of our past will be necessarily incomplete.

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