Lithograph, "The Darktown Fire Brigade: Slightly Demoralized" (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 – “Slightly Demoralized” – depicts the aftermath of a collision of a fire engine company (blue uniforms), a hose company (yellow uniforms), and a ladder company (red uniforms) on a narrow bridge. Their fire apparatus smashed, figures in the scene fight each other, struggle in the water, or run away. It is paired with a second scene entitled “All on Their Mettle.” This version is an original lithograph produced by Currier & Ives.

Date Made: ca 1889

Publisher: 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: 2005.0233.1103Accession Number: 2005.0233Catalog Number: 2005.0233.1103

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_1364235

Our collection database is a work in progress. We may update this record based on further research and review. Learn more about our approach to sharing our collection online.

If you would like to know how you can use content on this page, see the Smithsonian's Terms of Use. If you need to request an image for publication or other use, please visit Rights and Reproductions.