By Ken Zurski
On the evening of January 13, 1840, a paddlewheel steamship named the Lexington was halfway through its voyage along the Atlantic coast, a short commuter jaunt between New York City and Stonington, Connecticut, when it caught fire and quickly burned. The fire started in the mast but spread to a large load of cotton bales, which caused a raging inferno that engulfed the entire ship. Many frightened passengers were forced to jump into the frigid water.
By the time a rescue ship, the sloop Merchant, arrived around noon the next day, only a handful of people were found clinging to floating bales or other debris. Nearly all of the 143 on board perished. Only four were found alive, among them three crew members including the ship’s pilot who told rescuers he huddled with others at the bow before it was overcome by fire. He found a bale and was able to sit out of the icy water until help arrived. Only one passenger survived.
The news was devastating to loved ones back in New York where most of the dead resided. The big city newspapers relayed the story in their usual graphic and expressive detail and imagination soared with the shocking details. At the time newspapers were just words on paper with no illustrations. Thanks to the Lexington disaster however that was about to change.
A man named Nathaniel Currier was making lithographs of mostly business products like architectural plans and music manuscripts. Lithography, a process of printing using limestone, grease and water was not new, it had been invented nearly 30 years before Currier, an accomplished lithographer, perfected the craft in Boston and opened a New York shop of his own. But small printing jobs were not profitable and Currier needed to branch out. So he did portrait prints and memorials of the dead and finally made some money. In 1835, he had another idea. He produced a print depicting a true-life disaster. The print needed no more explanation other than the long title that accompanied the scene: Ruins of the Planter’s Hotel, New Orleans, which fell at two O’clock on the Morning of the 15th of May 1835, burying 50 persons, 40 of whom Escaped with their Lives. A picture that showed the news of the day, and produced at a rapid speed too, was striking indeed. It was a huge seller.
In 1840, Currier made another disaster print. It too had a long and detailed title: Awful Configuration of the Steamboat Lexington in the Long Island Sound on Monday Evening, January 13. 1840, by which melancholy occurrence over One Hundred Persons Perished. Based on an eyewitness description. the scene was as just as detailed as the newspaper’s words. The wounded steamship is seen burning in the background while a smattering of passengers struggle to stay above the choppy water. Some are on floating debris, others not. One man in a top hat and tails is seen reaching out to save another woman. Tragically, both are doomed.
Currier sold a bunch of the Lexington prints and was soon contacted by the editor of the New York Sun who wanted to put the depiction in the paper. An engraving of another steamboat wreck Home appeared in a competing a New York paper and the Sun was eager to do the same. Currier agreed and the Lexington print was boldly featured in a special edition.
But that’s not why Currier is remembered today.
Experiencing a windfall from the Lexington sales, in 1852, Currier hired James Merritt Ives to be his bookkeeper. Just looking at the two men, the pairing was a physical mismatch. Currier was tall and thin while Ives was short and stout. But the two gelled together. Ives was an artist and quickly streamlined the business with his own and others artistic abilities. In turn, he built up a sizable and profitable inventory. Ives soon became a valuable and dependent part of the team and he and Currier bonded as co-workers and friends. Their eventual partnership In 1857, began the company we know today as Currier and Ives.
Through the years Currier and Ives issued and sold colored and uncolored prints of every variety, included portraits, city and rural landscapes, trains and ships of note, famous race horses, and historical pictorials like milestones of the Civil War.
Currier and Ives left behind a lifetime of memories and thanks to a a print of the Lexington wreck, forever changed an industry. But their most lasting prints are featured during the holiday season. The folksy scenes of snow and sleigh rides evoke a spirit that is immortalized every year on Christmas cards.
The song Sleigh Ride compares the Currier and Ives prints to “a happy feeling nothing in the world can buy.”
It all started, however, by disaster.