Dramatic colorful Currier & Ives folio lithograph showing the burning of the New York City Crystal Palace exhibition hall in 1858. Prints documenting dramatic news events and disasters were popular in 19th century America; Currier & Ives alone produced 17 prints with titles beginning “Burning of” and two depictions of the Crystal Palace fire, the large one shown here and a small version with a similar composition. This print is in a 19th century, probably original, walnut frame.
The New York Crystal Palace was constructed almost entirely of iron and glass for the 1853 New York Exhibition, the first World’s Fair held in the United States. Designed to be a worthy counterpart to the Crystal Palace in London, it was the focus of national pride, a sparkling landmark with an immense 100-foot dome. President Franklin Pierce presided over the opening ceremonies. After the World’s Fair, it was utilized by other organizations. At the time of the fire, it housed the 30th Annual Exhibition of the American Institute: exhibits of fine and decorative arts, jewelry, gems, models of machinery and inventions. When it suddenly went up in flames, the New York Times reported: “The calamity has struck every one aghast, for the possibility of such an event has never been calculated upon. … The great fabric of glass and iron, with its priceless treasures of art, were suddenly wiped out of existence as though they had been mere unsubstantial vapor.” Aided by high winds and the failure of the extinguishing apparatus, the fire spread with astonishing rapidity: the Times account states that within 15 minutes the dome came crashing down. Remarkably, although about 2,000 people were in the Crystal Palace when the fire broke out, no one died in the fire. However, the building and its contents were thoroughly destroyed; the Times estimated the value of the lost exhibits to be at least half a million dollars.
The lithography firm of Currier & Ives was founded in 1834 by Nathaniel Currier as N. Currier, Lithographer, and based in New York. In 1852, he brought his brother-in-law, James Merritt Ives, into the business and renamed the firm Currier & Ives five years later. They were extremely prolific and highly successful, producing almost 7,500 different separately issued art prints through the 19th century until 1907, aptly advertising themselves as “Print-makers to the American People.” Their prints were issued in either small, medium or large folio, though some particularly popular images were issued in more than one size. Dozens of American artists in the mid 19th century painted primarily for lithographic reproduction by Currier & Ives and other firms. To please a broad audience, the firm presented a warmly positive vision of America, frequently sentimental, and sometimes with a touch of humor. Currier & Ives prints generally portrayed the American landscape, scenery and landmarks, including the westward expansion, as well as daily life in both urban and rural settings. Their sporting and maritime subjects were particularly popular. These prints are now highly collectible as records of American history, as fine works of American art, and for their decorative appeal.
Full title beneath image: Burning of the New York Crystal Palace, on Tuesday, Oct. 5th 1858. During Its Occupation for the Annual Fair of the American Institute.
Full publication information: New York. Pub’d by Currier & Ives, 152 Nassau Street.
Condition: Generally good with the usual overall toning, wear. Brilliantly hand colored. Two tears into image in top portion, one into the image in bottom portion, few other marginal tears, all skillfully repaired long ago, unobtrusive. Some scattered skinning to backside, and margins, also with old repairs and unobtrusive. Walnut frame with gilt bevel, probably original, with the usual overall wear, minor shrinkage separations at miters.
Bonfante-Warren, Alexandra. Currier & Ives: Portraits of a Nation. New York: Friedman/Fairfax, 1998. pp. 9, 23-41.
Chiu, Eric. “New York 1853.” University of Maryland Library. http://www.lib.umd.edu/ARCH/honr219f/1853nyci.html (14 October 2008).
Conningham, Frederic A. Currier and Ives Prints: An Illustrated Check List. New York: Crown, 1949. 743.
“Destruction of the Crystal Palace.” The New York Times. October 6, 1858. p. 4. Online at The New York Times Archives. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9D01E5D81131EE34BC4E53DFB6678383649FDE (14 October 2008).