Lithography, derived from Greek for “writing on a stone,” is a planographic printing process developed by Alois Senefelder in Germany at the end of the eighteenth century. One of the most important innovations in the printing industry, it is based on the principle that water and oil do not mix. In America, the practice of lithography became widespread after the 1820s. Nathaniel Currier learned the craft in Boston from John and William Pendleton, who operated one of the earliest lithographic workshops in the country. Currier’s work typically consisted of crayon lithographs, which later could be hand-colored with watercolor. After Currier hired Fanny Palmer, who had trained in a London workshop famous for its use of tint stones, the firm also produced lithographs that made use of several stones.

Preparing the Stone

In the 19th century, lithography required the use of limestone slabs with uniform surfaces that are defect-free. An apprentice would grind the surface of the stone to the desired degree of polish, depending on purpose. A grain was preferred for chalk drawing while a more polished surface was considered better for ink drawing.

Drawing on Stone

Limestone is a very sensitive surface. Any greasy mark can later print and tarnish the image. To prevent hands from soiling the stone, 19th-century lithographic treatises and manuals recommended the use of a wooden bridge, seen in this image.

Printing the Stone

To prepare the stone for printing, a solution of gum arabic and acid affixed the image on the stone. Moistened with water, the stone would then receive an application of oil-based ink from a roller. The printer then laid a sheet of paper on the stone and passed it through the press, transferring the inked drawing to the paper as a mirror image of the original.


Tools and Material Used in Currier & Ives Prints

Close observation and scientific examination of Palmer and Tait's lithographs took place at Winterthur during the preparation of this exhibition, leading to a better understanding of the tools, printing methods, and materials employed in the making of Currier & Ives prints in the nineteenth century. Lithographs bear considerable marks of the tools and materials the artists used while working on the stone, as well as the publisher's printing methods. Scientific analysis also sheds light on the pigments and papers used in the production of Currier & Ives lithographs.