Lithograph, "The Darktown Fire Brigade: The Prize Squirt"

Lithograph, "The Darktown Fire Brigade: The Prize Squirt"

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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 – “A Prize Squirt” – depicts a fire company (“Niagara”) engaged in a contest to throw water high enough to reach a liberty cap atop a pole. A group of spectators looks on and one man, dressed somewhat like Uncle Sam, holds a trophy, engraved “Prize Mug.” The fire pumper depicted is intentionally old-fashioned and shoddy, and the firefighters must stand on a board and sawhorses in order to operate it. It is paired with a second scene entitled “The Last Shake.” The print is a racist parody of the common practice of fire companies in American towns and cities to mark holidays with parades and contests, including pumping challenges. This version is a restrike produced by Joseph Koehler after 1907.
Currently not on view
Object Name
date made
ca 1907
Koehler, Joseph
Currier & Ives
place made
United States
Physical Description
lithograph (overall material)
overall: 15 in x 17 in; 38.1 cm x 43.18 cm
ID Number
accession number
catalog number
Credit Line
Gift of CIGNA Museum and Art Collection
African American
Fire Fighting
See more items in
Cultural and Community Life: Fire Fighting and Law Enforcement
Cultures & Communities
Data Source
National Museum of American History
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