Gallery 108, first floor
The steam-powered locomotive—a marvel of technology¬ in the early nineteenth century—became a symbol of modern life in America. What began as a few isolated tracks in the 1830s flourished into a thriving network of rail lines, enabling trains to travel faster than animal-drawn wagons and reach greater distances than canal riverboats. Innovations in railroad transportation in the 1860s and 1870s revolutionized the nation's economy, as trains could now deliver passengers and goods from the Atlantic to the Pacific coasts, both day and night. As trade and competition boomed, more Americans left the urban centers of the East for the open spaces of the West. With whistles blowing and engines churning, locomotives compressed time and space while expanding notions of progress and opportunity. The exciting possibilities for travel and change were captured in the popular imagination by New York publishers Nathaniel Currier (1813–1888) and James Merritt Ives (1824–1895). From charming genre scenes to biting political satires, Currier & Ives printed and sold pictures to the rich and poor alike, touting themselves as "a democratic firm in a democratic country." While early images of trains depicted cars and cabooses in flat profiles, Currier & Ives sought out artists such as Frances (Fanny) Palmer and Charles R. Parsons to create dynamic portraits. Many of these prints celebrate the power of the "Iron Horse" as it slices through the sweeping landscape, carving mountains and establishing towns under clouds of smoke. Other representations focus on the threat of this new technology, dramatically staging locomotives in scenes of natural disasters and mechanical failures. Combining authentic detail with sensational narrative, these compositions summarize the tension between the American public's hope for the future and its fear of the unknown.
Layla Bermeo, Barra Fellow