The first step in the lithography process was to draw a design on freshly ground limestone. Although some of Currier & Ives’s contract artists drew directly on stone in crayon, others provided sketches or paintings to be copied onto stone by a lithographer, as Prang suggests here. Because lithography transposes a mirror image to paper, each design would have to be worked in reverse. A specialist in lettering was responsible for identifying text, such as the caption accompanying this image of a clipper ship.
Once both lettering and drawing were rendered in crayon, a large brush was used to apply a dilute nitric acid solution to the surface of the stone. The acid “bit” the limestone, fixing the image to its surface. Finally a thin layer of gum arabic sealed the stone, preventing further grease from distorting the image to be printed.
Lithography operates on the principle that grease and water repel each other, so for each impression the printer dampens the stone’s surface with water and then uses a roller to apply grease-based ink, which adheres only to the design in crayon. Currier & Ives’s proprietary ink recipe appears above. To create the print, the printer would lay a damp sheet of paper over the stone and use the pressure of an iron plate to transfer the inked design to the paper. Many prints could be pulled from a stone with little deterioration, making lithographs easier to mass produce than woodcut impressions.
These colored prints allude to the final, finishing stage of the lithography process. While Currier & Ives employed chromolithography in some of their later prints, the firm relied primarily on a team of hand-colorists. A group of mostly German immigrant girls formed an assembly line, each applying a different color to individual impressions of the same design. This pair of prints commemorating the New York Crystal Palace shows how Currier & Ives repurposed the same stone for the new lithograph, as flames and other details were added to depict the building’s catastrophic demise.
Currier & Ives
This didactic illustration of a lithography workshop comes from Louis Prang’s 1874 Aids to Object Teaching, which provided a survey of various occupations of the time. Prang himself was a Boston entrepreneur known for his chromolithographs, which employed multiple stones to print a variety of colors. This image perfectly demonstrates this mid-nineteenth century innovation. Although Prang utilized technology more sophisticated than that of Currier & Ives, the Prang image illustrates the basic division of labor in the latter’s printing “factory.” In reality, both workshops would have been considerably more crowded with workers and equipment than are depicted here.