Lithograph, "The Darktown Fire Brigade: All on Their Mettle" (2)


In 1857, Nathaniel Currier and James Merritt Ives became business partners and set out to produce popular, affordable decorative prints for American consumers. In the 1880s, Currier & Ives produced the "Darktown Comics" series of color lithographs, which would become one of their best-selling lines. Each of these depicted African Americans as racist caricatures and ugly stereotypes, and presented scenes where the humor, such as it was, derived from their buffoonish antics and "putting on airs.” These color lithographs were primarily created by John Cameron (1828-1906) and Thomas Worth (1834-1917), two artists employed by Currier & Ives. They drew on a broad visual vocabulary of anti-black racist tropes that had developed over the 19th century, derogatory signifiers that would have been understood and shared by their popular audience, who created a demand for similar imagery in numerous other commercial and decorative objects of the time. Cameron and Worth often set hapless black figures in traditionally white roles, such as firefighting, and the ridiculous failures they depicted helped to reinforce entrenched racial and social hierarchies, as well as to perpetuate the notions of heroism and leadership as white male prerogatives in the period after Reconstruction. When Currier & Ives shut down operations in 1907, New York City printer Joseph Koehler purchased the lithographic stones of the "Darktown Comics" series from the firm and produced restrikes under his own name for several more years.

This color lithograph – “All on Their Mettle” – depicts a fire engine company (blue uniforms), a hose company (yellow uniforms), and a ladder company (red uniforms) rushing to a fire, all about to collide on a narrow bridge. Their respective officers urge them on through speaking trumpets, each intent on being first on the scene. It is paired with a second scene entitled “Slightly Demoralized.” This version is a restrike produced by Joseph Koehler after 1907.

Date Made: ca 1889

Publisher: Koehler, JosephCopyrighter: Currier & Ives

Location: Currently not on view

See more items in: Home and Community Life: Fire Fighting and Law Enforcement


Exhibition Location:

Credit Line: Gift of CIGNA Museum and Art Collection

Data Source: National Museum of American History

Id Number: 2005.0233.1101Accession Number: 2005.0233Catalog Number: 2005.0233.1101

Object Name: lithograph

Physical Description: lithograph (overall material)Measurements: overall: 15 in x 17 in; 38.1 cm x 43.18 cm


Record Id: nmah_1364231

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