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The City of New Orleans: Currier & Ives c. 1885

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  • Title: The City of New Orleans and the Mississippi River. Lake Pontchartrain in the Distance.
  • Author: Currier & Ives
  • Date: c. 1885
  • Medium: Hand-colored lithograph
  • Condition: A nearly flawless example in excellent condition. Deacidified and buffered, with minimal freshening of color and minute expert repairs to two spots slightly damaged by old glazing. The absolute finest we have seen.
  • Inches: 40 3/4 x 27 1/4 [Paper]
  • Centimeters: 103.51 x 69.22 [Paper]
  • Product ID: 311014

Only three other examples of this magnificent birds eye view of New Orleans are known to exist. Two copies reside at the Library of Congress and the Historic New Orleans Collection, respectively, while the other is in a private hands. The print was published in 1885 to publicize the World's Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition. The view of New Orleans shows the bend in the river with ships and steamboats. Many boats can be seen on Lake Pontchartrain is in the background, and the lower margin contains over forty names of buildings and areas. Named buildings and locations include City Hall, Lafayette Square, several in the French Quarter, and others.

The Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition, held on the centennial of the first known export of cotton from the United States to Great Britain, offered New Orleans a chance to demonstrate to the world how Reconstruction had revitalized its businesses and infrastructure. In a fascinating turn of events, the Exposition failed financially but succeeded culturally, accelerating urbanization and ushering in a more modern and vibrant New Orleans. Shortly after the expo, Tulane University relocated uptown, attracting a well-educated and wealthy demographic to the area; Loyola University would do the same in 1910. Additionally, in the 1890s the city built a modern water purification system, while steel framed construction followed shortly after, forever changing the city’s skyline. This view captures the city as it appeared in 1885, immediately prior to this era of rapid growth and urbanization.

Currier and Ives

Currier & Ives lithographs ranked among the most popular wall hangings in nineteenth-century America. The prints of Nathaniel Currier and James Merritt Ives, which typically depict the history and customs of the American people, also provide valuable historical records of a time when news photography was still unknown. After undertaking apprenticeships in Boston and Philadelphia, Currier set up a print publishing company in New York City in 1834. He hired Ives as his bookkeeper in 1852 and made him a partner in 1857, creating the firm of Currier & Ives. The company lasted until 1907, eventually passing into the hands of the two men's sons.

In an era before photojournalism, Currier met the public’s demand for graphic representation of recent events. In 1835, he printed a lithograph, The Ruins of the Merchants’ Exchange, four days after the building burned; in 1840, three days after the event, he issued a colored print of a steamship burning on Long Island Sound. In partnership with Ives, who had a flair for gauging popular interests, he expanded his range from depictions of disasters to political satire and other topical subjects. The company also branched into dramatic or slightly sentimentalized scenes such as steamboat races, boxing matches, sleigh rides in the country, and fashionable soirees. Touting itself as “Publishers of Cheap and Popular Pictures,” the firm sold prints ranging in price from 5 cents to $3, depending on the size. The firm sold retail as well as wholesale, establishing outlets in cities across the country and in London. Between 1840 and 1890, Currier & Ives published more than 7,000 prints.

While never purporting artistic greatness, Currier & Ives insisted on fine craftmanship and the best lithographic materials. Most designs were created by house staff, while others were commissioned from young artists such as Louis Maurer, Thomas Worth, and Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait. As the firm was not equipped for chromolithography, prints were hand-colored by a dozen or more women in assembly-line fashion, one color to a worker. The colors favored were clear and simple, and the drawing was bold and direct. Though their methodology was ultimately rendered obsolete by automation and the photograph, Currier & Ives prints became valuable records of the politics, history, and manners of nineteenth-century America.

The World's Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition

The exposition was conceived to promote New Orleans and mark the 100th anniversary of the nation's cotton industry. The city's first world's fair opened in what is now Audubon Park on Dec. 16, 1884. In late 1882, the National Cotton Planters Association proposed a centennial exposition commemorating the 100th anniversary of the nation's cotton industry. Local papers quickly proposed New Orleans as the ideal site for the event. It wasn't until September, 1884 that bids were put out for vendors for the event, which opened two weeks late. Some exhibits weren't completed until long after the exposition had opened.

The city was "decorated as she never was before" on December 16, 1884, opening day at the exposition, the newspaper noted. The Cotton Centennial Exposition's largest building was also the largest building in the country in 1884. It covered thirty-three acres and was constructed in about six months. The Horticultural Hall, the largest greenhouse in the world, numbered among many notable buildings constructed for the event; it was the only one to remain in use after the fair, but was destroyed in a 1915 hurricane.

By the time it concluded in May 1885, the expo had attracted more than 1 million visitors, including an estimated 36,000 the week of Mardi Gras. Still, it closed deeply in debt, and today none of the buildings remain at the park. In May 1885, Edward Burke, the former director general of the expo, was indicted for forgery and fraud allegedly committed while he was the state treasurer. The fair ended deep in the red, and Burke fled the country.