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
Lithograph, "The Presidents of the United States," 1844 (1844) by N. Currier (Firm)Original Source: Digital Collections
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.
John Quincy Adams
President from 1825 to 1829, Adams was the son of patriot and second President John Adams and his wife Abigail. His proposed programs of federal funding to modernize transportation networks and establish a national educational system, and his support of high tariffs, enraged Jacksonian Democrats in Congress who defeated many of his proposals. Lithographer D. W. Kellogg of Hartford, Connecticut, produced this print—likely part of a series of American presidents that post-dated Adams’s actual presidency.
Martin Van Buren
President from 1837 to 1841, Van Buren was an advisor to, and hand-picked successor of, President Andrew Jackson, and his plan when he took office was to follow the path set in place by “his illustrious predecessor.” Immediately after he took the oath of office, however, he was confronted by the economic Panic of 1837, and the lengthy depression that followed. A natty dresser who came from a modest background, Van Buren was known for his ability to interact with people from all walks of life.
William Henry Harrison
A one-time military general called from retirement, 67-year-old William Henry Harrison was able to take advantage of a wildly popular campaign staged by Whig Party leaders, who capitalized on the false perception that Harrison was a common farmer living in a log cabin on the frontier. A cheering crowd of over 50,000 people lined Pennsylvania Avenue for his inauguration on March 4, 1841. He confirmed Cabinet appointments and directed Congress to address the country’s dire financial situation before falling ill and dying of pneumonia a month into his presidency.
Lithograph, "Death of Harrison, April 4 A.D. 1841" (1841/1846) by N. Currier (Firm)Original Source: Digital Collections
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
President from 1845 to 1849, James K. Polk was, at 49, the youngest man up to that time to assume the Presidency. In this hand-colored lithograph by Nathaniel Currier’s firm, he is depicted as the President-Elect in a long line of distinguished and revered U.S. Presidents, beginning with George Washington. A scene of the 1776 Declaration Committee in the center adds to the patriotic sentiment.
Lithograph,"James K. Polk, Eleventh President of the United States," circa 1846 (1841/1851) by Baillie, James S., active 1838-1855 and Sowle & ShawOriginal Source: Digital Collections
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.
Zachary Taylor, a military hero who had acquired the nickname of “Old Rough and Ready,” was chosen by Whig Party leaders to run for president in 1848. His political platform was vague; in fact, he appeared to lack interest in politics, although his major goal seemed to be preserving the Union through compromise. Before any official compromise was reached, however, he died in office on July 9, 1850. This patriotic lithograph equates Taylor with the illustrious men who held the office of president before him.
Lithograph, "Millard Fillmore," circa 1856 (1851/1861) by N. Currier (Firm)Original Source: Digital Collections
Fillmore became President when Zachary Taylor died suddenly in office on July
9, 1850. At his death, Taylor’s entire
Cabinet promptly resigned, upon which Fillmore quickly replaced them with
supporters of what would become the Compromise of 1850—a package of separate
bills that only temporarily reduced sectional conflicts over the expansion of slavery.
Fillmore, pictured here in this hand-colored lithograph, was a candidate to become the fifteenth president in 1856.
This print also reminded the public that Fillmore had served as the 13th President after Zachary Taylor.
Franklin Pierce, a northern Democrat serving as president from 1853 to 1857, was seen as a compromise candidate unifying northern and southern factions. Unfortunately, his presidency started out in mourning and severe depression, as his last surviving son had just been gruesomely killed in a train accident. His attempts to satisfy the increasingly bitter factions of the Democratic Party largely failed, turning many in the party against him, making him numerous enemies, and failing to instill public faith in America’s democratic process. This hand-colored lithograph, produced for candidate Pierce, likely would have been re-purposed and sold during his presidency.
Abraham Lincoln, America’s 16th President, won the four-way 1860 election on the Republican ticket opposed to the expansion of slavery. In retaliation, seven Southern states seceded from the Union, with four more about to join them. Lincoln’s inaugural speech assured Southerners that he would not tamper with slavery in their states but nor would he accept secession—the “essence of anarchy.” Despite his entreaty, just one month after his inauguration, war officially broke out when Confederates fired on Fort Sumter in South Carolina on April 12, 1861. Lincoln’s entire Presidency would be consumed by Civil War.
Andrew Johnson assumed the presidency when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865. Respecting Lincoln’s wishes as the Civil War was winding down, Johnson pushed for the quick return of Southern states to the Union, but his policies to return previous Southern political leaders to power, pardon many former Confederates, and fail to protect the rights of freed slaves enraged many Republicans who dominated Congress and eventually led to his impeachment. This image might have been produced when Johnson served as Lincoln’s military governor of Tennessee.
Print, "In Remembrance of the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Independence of the United States," 1876 (1876) by George Stinson & Co.Original Source: http://collections.thehenryford.org/Collection.aspx?objectKey=28772
Ulysses S. Grant
S. Grant was America’s 18th President, serving from 1869 to 1877. Grant took advantage of his fame as a Civil
War general and his connection with the martyred President Abraham Lincoln to
be elected for two terms. His second
term was marked by both a severe economic depression and a grand celebration of
the country’s 100th anniversary of independence.
This print, produced for the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876, is full of patriotic imagery and symbols, scenes from the fair, and images of all the presidents to date.
President Grant can be seen at the top of the presidents pictured on the right.
Grover Cleveland, a bachelor when he took office in 1885, soon met and fell in love with Frances Folsom—the daughter of a close friend—and they were married in June 1886. The new Mrs. Cleveland, at 21 years old (compared with Cleveland’s age of 48) was the youngest first lady in history. The newlyweds received much publicity, including this two-page spread published as a supplement to the national popular periodical Harper’s Weekly. Cleveland, the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms as president, became known for his crusades against political corruption.
William McKinley was America’s 25th President, serving from 1897 until his tragic assassination in 1901—only six months into his second term. During his first term, he promised to restore prosperity to the nation still suffering from the economic Panic of 1893, and led the nation through the Spanish-American War. Although McKinley was considered a competent and well-liked president, his popularity was soon eclipsed by his vice-president—Teddy Roosevelt—who succeeded him in office.
Political bosses in New York City did not like Governor Theodore Roosevelt’s reform agenda. But when they sought to sideline his career by thrusting him into the position of President McKinley’s running mate in 1900, little did they know that, a year later, McKinley would be assassinated and Roosevelt would become the nation’s president. Though Roosevelt claimed he would follow President McKinley’s policies, he soon set off on a path of his own—to make the Republican Party more liberal—and average citizens loved him for it.
At the beginning of the 19th century, average Americans had little access to art. But with the proliferation of popular prints like these, colorful images pervaded homes, workshops, and public spaces and became a normal part of people’s daily lives. These prints took on their greatest significance in the home parlor, where families expressed their social status, beliefs, and values through the furnishings they chose to display there. Presidential prints were not only decorative but they also served as teaching tools for children. Perhaps most importantly, they stood as steadfast symbols of America’s democratic society.
From The Henry Ford Archive of American Innovation™.
See more artifacts related to 19th century presidents in The Henry Ford’s digital collections.