Most Americans could not afford to own original paintings like wealthy patrons of the arts. But, in the 19th century, the new invention of lithography made it possible for them to own reproduced versions of pictures. These affordable prints reminded people of the lives and accomplishments of their favorite presidents.
The most well-known and prolific producer of these lithographs was the firm of Currier & Ives, founded by talented lithographer and entrepreneur Nathaniel Currier in 1835. Other companies quickly followed Currier’s lead in producing sentimental, humorous, and patriotic prints in a wide range of topics. Portraits of famous figures, past and present, were the subjects of numerous prints, with those of presidents among the most popular.
This sentimental print depicts the last moments of President Harrison on April 4, 1841. His reputed last words appear underneath the image, supposedly addressed to the statesmen shown here—though they were likely not actually in attendance at the President’s deathbed on that day. John Tyler, the first vice president to succeed a president who died in office, was a Southerner from Virginia, who soon veered so greatly from the Whig Party agenda that Whig leaders ousted him from the party.
James K. Polk’s inauguration was the first to be reported by telegraph as well as the first to be depicted in an illustrated newspaper (The Illustrated London News). Polk led the country into war with Mexico—leading to vast new territory in the southwestern United States, which heightened existing sectional tensions about the expansion of slavery. This print was produced by J. Baillie, a prolific publisher of popular lithographs who had once worked as a colorist for Nathaniel Currier.
From The Henry Ford Archive of American Innovation™.
See more artifacts related to 19th century presidents in The Henry Ford’s digital collections.