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Prior to 1820 in America, books, magazines, and other printed material typically were produced and sold locally by individual printers, binders, and booksellers, all working independently. Mechanical limitations, difficult transportation conditions, and the financial instability of the young nation made the business of publishing an unprofessional and unprofitable affair in early America. Only with improvements in transportation, such as the opening of the Erie Canal (1825), and the invention of new technologies—including stereotyping (1813), the steam press (1833), and advanced cutting, folding, and binding machines and materials—did businesses akin to the modern professional publishing house begin to emerge in American society.

In the years between 1820 and 1870 American publishers with such now-familiar names as Harper, Putnam, Little, and Brown consolidated the operations of printing, binding, distributing, and selling books to become successful businessmen, prominent figures in the development of a national literature, and literary tastemakers for much of the world. For each of these successful publishers, many more who once left their imprints on major American literary works, including James Fenimore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans (1825), Ralph Waldo Emerson's Essays (1841), and Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), have since been forgotten. Between 1820 and 1870, some of the nineteenth century's most prominent publishing firms, such as Carey and Lea, Ticknor and Fields, Phillips, Sampson, and Company, and John P. Jewett, variously fell to national financial crises, intense competition, overexpansion, or mergers with other firms.

The rise and fall of different publishing houses as well as geographical advantages and disadvantages led to competition among New York, Philadelphia, and Boston to become the publishing capital of the United States. From the start of the century until the 1820s, Philadelphia initially was ascendant, due to its status as the nation's largest city and its proximity to major shipping routes to the South and near West. Transportation via the Hudson River and the Erie Canal, a surge in population, and the increasing concentration of businesses in Manhattan allowed New York City to overtake Philadelphia as the center of American publishing by mid-century. Publishers in Boston began the nineteenth century producing books primarily for a New England audience, largely as a result of the city's lack of major waterways into the interior. In 1840s Boston the construction of new railroad lines and the concentration of prominent writers in the area briefly returned some of the prominence in publishing that the city had enjoyed during the colonial period. Yet by 1850 the unparalleled success of Harper & Brothers and the continuing migration of businesses to Manhattan brought New York the national dominance in publishing that it maintains to the early twenty-first century.

Relations between authors and publishers during this time often were strained. American publishers regularly pirated the works of British and European authors in their bid to profit from a large domestic audience eager for the latest foreign fiction. While copyright law did more to protect American authors against such unauthorized reprinting, it was not extended to recognize the foreign copyrights of imported works. Initially, American publishers established what was known as a "courtesy of the trade"—a concession to the firm that was the first to reprint a foreign work in the United States. The immense profits reaped from such reprints, particularly from the novels of Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832), soon proved irresistible to competitors who began publishing their own editions of popular imported literature. The resulting competition to capture the market for new works published abroad became so intense that publishers often went to extraordinary lengths to obtain the first copy of an imported work. Some New York and Philadelphia publishers were known to meet ships even before they docked to rush the copy of a valuable work to their compositors and to run their presses overnight in hopes of producing the first American edition. Others are said to have gone so far as to dispatch typesetters abroad to compose reprint plates shipboard as they sailed to the United States.

Such practices did much to frustrate the efforts of American authors to gain a wider audience for their writings. Unwilling to assume the financial risk of publishing works by untested authors, American publishers largely dedicated their presses to reprinting literature that already had proven popular abroad. From 1820 into the 1850s, when American writers did convince publishers to put out their works, they typically were asked to finance the venture themselves, with the publishers only providing their printing and distribution services for hire. Not all authors suffered under such practices, however. Washington Irving (1783–1859) and James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851), rare examples of successful early American authors, gained significantly from this arrangement, keeping up to 40 percent of profits for themselves. Innovating on this practice in the 1840s, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882), Herman Melville (1819–1891), and other enterprising writers began purchasing the stereotype plates for their works and offering them to publishers for lease or for royalties from each copy printed from them; some gained, while others lost substantial sums from their outlays in purchasing the costly plates. By the 1850s as American literature had gained increasing respect domestically and abroad, authors and publishers began establishing agreements in which the publisher assumed the initial expenses of publication and distribution and the author and publisher divided the eventual profits. While profits were not always shared in equal proportions, this arrangement allowed many authors who had been successful writing for popular periodicals yet could not afford to publish their own books or buy their own plates to enter the marketplace alongside established authors.

While American publishers and authors alike faced imposing odds against their success in the early nineteenth century, they gained rapidly and significantly as both professions expanded and stabilized. In 1820, $2.5 million worth of books were produced and sold in the United States. Between 1830 and 1842 publishers printed and distributed an average of only one hundred books per year; by 1850 they were capable of publishing $12.5 million worth of thousands of copies of books in a year (Tebbel 1:221). While the Civil War interrupted these steady gains by driving publishers in North and South alike out of business and limiting the production capacities of those who persisted, the profession quickly reestablished its prominence and profitability through further technological innovation and continuing competition. By 1870 the major American book publishers were thoroughly professionalized, well established, and poised to continue business into the twentieth century.


In the early nineteenth century, Philadelphia was the center of publishing in America, largely due to the efforts of an Irish immigrant named Mathew Carey (1760–1839), who began business there in 1785 as a printer, bookseller, and promoter of the printing arts. From his start publishing newspapers, Carey developed a substantial list of titles and a wide distribution of his publications. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Carey had become the most successful printer in America and had done much to establish Philadelphia as the center of American publishing. In 1822 Carey turned the business over to his son, Henry Charles Carey (1793–1879). Shortly thereafter Henry brought his brother-in-law, Isaac Lea (1792–1886), into the family business as a junior partner and changed the firm's name to M. Carey and Sons, the first of several name changes and reorganizations common to nineteenth-century publishing firms. In their new partnership, Carey and Lea became the leading pirates of imported literature in the 1820s. At the same time, they were among the first publishers to promote works by American authors, among them Irving's Tales of a Traveller (1824) and Cooper's Last of the Mohicans (1826). In the late 1820s Carey established two magazines, the Atlantic Souvenir and the American Quarterly Review, to feature new work by American writers; both ultimately proved short-lived at the firm as a result of too expensive production and distribution costs.

In 1828 Edward Carey left Carey and Lea to open Carey and Hart in partnership with the Philadelphia stationer Abraham Hart; the split was amicable and the firm operated immediately next door to Carey and Lea. Among Carey and Hart's most successful publications were the Poets and Poetry of Europe (1845), edited by Longfellow, and Poets and Poetry of America (1842), Female Poets of America (1849), and Prose Writers of America (1847), each edited by Rufus Wilmot Griswold, Edgar Allan Poe's (1809–1849) literary executor. Between 1835 and 1847 Carey and Hart also published two popular gift books, The Gift and The Diadem, each featuring substantial illustrations and new writings by significant and emerging English and American writers. With the arrival of William A. Blanchard as a third partner to Carey and Lea in 1833, the new firm of Carey, Lea and Blanchard initiated the first publication of Jane Austen's novels in the United States, meeting with significant success. While Carey, Lea and Blanchard suffered during the national banking crisis of 1833–1834, the firm survived to compete with rising New York publishers for national dominance. After Carey's retirement in 1838, Lea and Blanchard focused on medical publishing while losing ground to New York, subsequently continuing in this specialty through 1870 and into the late twentieth century. Last called Lea and Febiger, it was finally absorbed by a firm descended from another significant nineteenth-century Philadelphia publisher, J. B. Lippincott and Company.

Joshua Ballinger Lippincott (1813–1886) started in the book trade working as a young clerk in a Philadelphia bookstore in the 1820s. He quickly rose to take over ownership of the store, and by 1850 Lippincott had become a successful publisher of religious and general literature. Capitalizing on the financial difficulties of smaller rivals, Lippincott incorporated several firms into his own to become the largest publisher in Philadelphia in the 1850s. Successful titles published by Lippincott and Company include Noah Webster's Blue-Back Speller, acquired by the firm in 1858; its Dictionary of American Authors (1870); and Lippincott's Magazine, an illustrated general-interest periodical that was popular during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Among the firm's innovations was the introduction of a line of photo albums to its catalog in 1860. Capitalizing on the growing popularity of cartes de visite, an early type of photographic print used for portraits, Lippincott sold albums ranging from simple and affordable to extravagantly detailed and priced. Such diversification enabled the firm to survive the Civil War and continue its publication of medical literature, gift books, and household editions of British authors beyond the nineteenth century.


The seeds of the so-called flowering of New England literary and intellectual culture in the antebellum period were sown in the region's most prominent publishing houses. Between 1832 and 1865, the imprint of the Boston publishers Ticknor and Fields appeared on the works of many of England's and America's major authors, including Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Greenleaf Whittier, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, William Makepeace Thackeray, and Charles Dickens. From its beginnings in the Old Corner Bookstore, at the corner of Washington and School Streets in the 1820s, the firm grew steadily under the direction of William Davis Ticknor (1810–1864) and James Thomas Fields (1817–1881). Ticknor's early focus on medical texts gradually expanded under the influence of Fields, who began working in the bookstore as a clerk and became a partner in 1843. Fields, a writer in his own right, frequently socialized with Boston's emerging intellectual elite, as the Old Corner Bookstore became a prominent literary gathering place modeled on the salons that Fields enjoyed during business trips to Europe.

Ticknor and Fields became known for its comparatively generous terms for paying authors, attracting, among others, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864) and a manuscript he had been keeping to himself in Salem after the publication of his Mosses from an Old Manse, published by the New York firm of Wiley and Putnam in 1846. A visit from Fields prompted Hawthorne to share his initial draft of The Scarlet Letter with the publisher. With Fields's encouragement, Hawthorne expanded what was originally a short story into what became an instant best-seller in 1850. In the 1850s Fields became a master promoter of the firm's authors, advertising its latest works nationwide, providing booksellers with color posters for their windows, and strategically placing favorable reviews of Ticknor and Fields's newest publications. In 1865 after the death of Ticknor, Fields sold the Old Corner Bookstore to the publisher E. P. Dutton and Company, while Ticknor and Fields, as the firm continued to be known, remained a thriving publishing house. Its prominence won Ticknor and Fields the right to serve as Dickens's exclusive American publisher in 1867. A year later the firm became Fields, >Osgood and Company, and in 1871 Fields retired to lecture and write his memoirs of a literary life.

During the same period, the Cambridge booksellers Charles Coffin Little (1799–1869) and James Brown (1800–1855) joined forces to form the publishing house of Charles C. Little and Company. Among their most prominent publications were Jared Sparks's editions of the writings of Franklin and Washington and George Bancroft's History of the United States (1834). Renamed Little, Brown and Company in 1847, the publishing house specialized in law books, English and other European reprints, and Latin books "for the gentleman's library." With the success of their affordable collections of English poetry, Little and Brown expanded their list to publish Daniel Webster's (1782–1852) speeches and writings and the letters of John Adams (1735–1826) and Abigail Adams (1744–1818). Their most successful venture was John Bartlett's (1820–1905) Familiar Quotations, first published in 1859 and revised and expanded nine times during Bartlett's life. While Brown died suddenly in 1855 and Little in 1869, after having become a Cambridge selectman, a state legislator, a bank president, and a director on several boards, the firm carried on in the late nineteenth century under Bartlett's direction, expanding its list of general publications.

The publishing house of Phillips, Sampson and Company, a Boston contemporary of Little, Brown and Ticknor and Fields, holds a significant place in American literary history as the original publisher of Emerson's English Traits (1856) and Representative Men (1850), the Atlantic Monthly magazine, and the lavishly illustrated Boston editions of works by Shakespeare, Milton, Byron, and other prominent British authors. Yet unlike Little, Brown, the firm did not survive the financial panic of 1857 and the deaths of its founders, Moses Dresser Phillips and Charles Sampson, in 1859.

Similarly, the firm founded by John P. Jewett (1814–1884), a bookseller, binder, and publisher of schoolbooks, also met with failure during the panic of 1857 following the incredible success of its first major publication, Harriet Beecher Stowe's (1811–1896) Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1852. Sympathetic to the cause of abolition, Jewett had followed Stowe's narrative as it appeared serially in the National Era (1847–1860) and offered to publish it in book form for either shared costs and profits or a flat 10 percent royalty. In choosing the 10 percent option, Stowe eventually lost millions, while Jewett initially feared that he had made a serious mistake as the novel grew in length to require its publication in two volumes. On 20 March 1852 Jewett published the novel two months before its conclusion in the National Era, selling the two volumes at a price of $2.50. Within days, the original printing of ten thousand copies had sold out; to meet demand, Jewett had to operate his presses continuously. After a year, 305,000 copies had been sold (Tebbel 1:427). Jewett followed up this incredible success by acquiring the rights to another popular serial novel, Maria Susanna Cummins's (1827–1866) The Lamplighter (1854). While its numbers did not match Stowe's, its profits allowed Jewett to open a Cleveland branch and to expand his list to temperance tracts, theology, and an edition of Margaret Fuller's (1810–1850) Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845). With the firm's collapse in 1857, Jewett abandoned bookselling and publishing in favor of selling household goods and negotiating patents. Upon moving to New York in 1866, he returned to his career as a bookseller but did not resume his work as a publisher.


In New York ready access to shipping routes for the import and export of goods allowed numerous publishing houses to flourish between 1820 and 1870. One such firm was John Wiley and Sons, founded as a printing house and bookshop in the early nineteenth century by Charles Wiley (1810–1878). Wiley's bookstore, known as The Den, became a popular gathering place for writers and intellectuals, including Cooper, J. K. Paulding, Samuel F. B. Morse, William Cullen Bryant, and Richard Henry Dana Sr. In 1826 John Wiley took over the business upon the death of his father, and in 1833 he formed a partnership with George Palmer Putnam (1814–1872), an apprentice bookseller. As Wiley and Putnam, the firm began publishing its series the Library of Choice Reading, a popular collection of select literature, in 1840. Its success inspired the companion series, the Library of American Books, edited by Evert Augustus Duyckinck (1816–1878), the prominent activist for a national literature who befriended a young Melville and acquired his first novel, Typee, for publication in 1846. The latter series also included Poe's Tales (1845) and Hawthorne's collection of stories, Mosses from an Old Manse (1846). While Putnam focused on developing the firm's collection of American and British titles, Wiley pursued the publication of scientific and technical works. This division of labor and interests ultimately resulted in Putnam's departure to found his own firm in 1847.

Putnam began publishing on his own by gaining the reprint rights to Irving's works in 1847. From this profitable start, his firm, G. P. Putnam, expanded to publish Poe's Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1847) and his quasi-scientific treatise Eureka (1848) and works by James Russell Lowell, Cooper, Thomas Carlyle, Leigh Hunt, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. One of Putnam's greatest successes was Susan Warner's (1819–1885) The Wide, Wide World (1850), which Putnam published after its rejection by the rival firm of Harper & Brothers; in two years, thirteen editions of the immensely popular novel had been printed. In 1853 the firm launched Putnam's Monthly Magazine. Even as a venue for some of the century's most writers, including Hawthorne, Holmes, Longfellow, Lowell, Francis Parkman, and Whittier, the magazine operated for only four years, in each of which it failed to produce a profit for the firm. As with many publishers, Putnam foundered during the panic of 1857 and suspended publication during the Civil War but resumed business in 1866 as G. P. Putnam and Son.

The New York publisher Daniel Appleton (1785–1849) came to publishing from a somewhat unusual background; rather than apprenticing as a bookseller or printer, Appleton began work as a dry-goods seller in Massachusetts before moving to New York to sell books. In 1831 he published his first book, initially specializing in religious texts and eventually expanding into profitable British reprints. In the 1840s the firm enlarged its list to include Spanish-language books for the South American trade, which it dominated into the twentieth century, and profitable travel guides for American tourists venturing abroad. With Appleton's death in 1856, three of his sons took the helm and began the firm's largest publishing venture, the New American Cyclopedia. By the end of the century, over three million volumes of the Cyclopedia were sold door-to-door and by subscription. Between 1820 and 1870 Appleton published many school textbooks, the poetry of William Cullen Bryant (1794–1878), and more than forty novels by Mary Jane Holmes (1825–1907), who became the century's second-most financially successful female writer (second to Harriet Beecher Stowe). During the Civil War the strength of Appleton's Cyclopedia kept the publisher profitable and ensured its success through the end of the century.

The publishing house that came to dominate publishing in New York and, thereby, America began business as J. & J. Harper in 1817. James (1795–1869) and John Harper (1797–1875) were brothers who came to be considered as New York's finest printers for their advanced stereotyping equipment. In 1823 and 1825 two younger brothers joined the business and transitioned the family from printing to a full-fledged publishing operation. During the 1820s the Harpers published the first clothbound books in America, and in 1830 they launched the first series, or "libraries," of popular literature for mass audiences. In 1833, the year that the firm first came to be known as Harper & Brothers, the brothers installed a powerful steam press that replaced the horse-driven presses that were the industry standard to that point. Such technological advances resulted in the firm's popular abridged edition of Webster's Dictionary (1843) and the highly successful Harper's Illuminated and New Pictorial Bible (1844), which was printed using a new electrotyping process and was praised as the finest American printing achieved to its date. By the end of the 1840s Harper & Brothers had won claim to the title of the largest publishing house in America, operating nineteen power presses and countless hand presses to produce nearly two million volumes per year. The 1850s saw the firm's publication of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (1851) and the launch of its two magazines, Harper's New Monthly Magazine (1850) and Harper's Weekly (1857), which enjoyed a success uncommon among publishers' magazines. In 1853 a major fire destroyed the Harpers' printing operation; they replaced it in 1855 with two fireproof plants built with innovative construction techniques that made them tourist attractions at the time. During the Civil War the brothers initiated Harper's Pictorial History of the Great Rebellion, which began publication in 1862 and ended a successful run in 1868. Their magazines, widely read for their illustrated and timely coverage of the war, carried the firm through the conflict; its dominance in the nineteenth century ensured its longevity into the early twenty-first century.


Beyond New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, smaller publishing houses provided the South and the expanding West with books and other printed matter beyond those publications imported from the Northeast. In North Carolina the firm of E. J. Hale and Son became one of the largest publishers in the South. Among its accomplishments was the Observer, a newspaper founded in 1850. Hale's Observer enjoyed the widest circulation of any newspaper in North Carolina, and by the 1860s it had become one of the leading newspapers in the Confederacy. In South Carolina, the publishing house of Russell and Jones produced a collection of southern poetry between 1846 and 1855 and several works by William Gilmore Simms (1806–1870). Further south, in New Orleans, a New York émigré named Benjamin Levy (1786–1860) became the first major Jewish printer and publisher in the United States, issuing law books, business and political titles, some literature, almanacs, and city directories. During the Civil War, numerous Southern publishers worked to fill the void left by books no longer imported from the North and England. Richmond, Charleston, and New Orleans emerged as centers of publishing activity, yet Southern publishers struggled without adequate paper supplies or stereotyping and electrotyping equipment. As the war progressed, many publishers attempting to continue operations in the South were reduced to using wallpaper and other available materials to print newspapers and bind books.

By the 1830s Cincinnati had become the center of the western book trade and fourth to the three eastern publishing cities in the number of volumes produced each year. Among the nearly two million books published in Cincinnati by the 1840s were the Eclectic Series and the successful textbooks McGuffey's Readers, published by the firm of Truman and Smith. Other prominent publishers included J. A. and U. P. James, George Conclin, Applegate and Company, and H. W. Derby and Company. By the 1870s western competition intensified as Chicago became the major regional rail hub. This reduced the numbers of significant Cincinnati publishing houses.

An early Chicago publisher, S. C. Griggs (1819–1897), began business as a bookseller in 1848, following the model of his eastern counterparts. His firm evolved into S. C. Griggs and Company, a successful publisher of schoolbooks and medical and theological texts and a major distributor of eastern books to the western United States. In 1856 William H. Rand (1828–1915) relocated from Boston to Chicago to work as a printer. In 1858 he joined with Andrew McNally (1836–1904) to form a publishing house that they soon consolidated with the Chicago newspaper, the Press and Tribune. After the Civil War they reformed as Rand McNally and Company and began publishing books in the 1870s.

See alsoBanking, Finance, Panics, and Depressions; Boston; Civil War; English Literature; Gift Books and Annuals; Literary Marketplace; Literary Nationalism; New York; Periodicals; Philadelphia; Technology


Secondary Works

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Comparato, Frank E. Books for the Millions: A History of theMen Whose Methods and Machines Packaged the Printed Word. Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole, 1971.

Exman, Eugene. The Brothers Harper: A Unique PublishingPartnership and its Impact upon the Cultural Life of America from 1817 to 1853. New York: Harper and Row, 1965.

Greenspan, Ezra. George Palmer Putnam: RepresentativeAmerican Publisher. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000.

Kaser, David. Messrs. Carey and Lea of Philadelphia: A Study in the History of the Booktrade. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1957.

Lehmann-Haupt, Hellmut, in collaboration with Lawrence C. Wroth and Rollo G. Silver. The Book in America: A History of Making and Selling Books in the United States. 2nd ed. New York: R. R. Bowker, 1951.

McGill, Meredith L. American Literature and the Culture of Reprinting, 1834–1853. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.

Madison, Charles Allan. Book Publishing in America. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966.

Moore, John Hammond. Wiley, One Hundred and Seventy Five Years of Publishing. New York: Wiley, 1982.

One Hundred and Fifty Years of Publishing, 1785–1935. Philadelphia: Lea and Febiger, 1935.

Overton, Grant Martin. The First Hundred Years of the House of Appleton, 1825–1925. New York: D. Appleton, 1925.

Rostenberg, Leona, and Madeleine B. Stern. From Revolution to Revolution: Perspectives on Publishing and Bookselling, 1501–2001. New Castle, Del.: Oak Knoll, 2002.

Stern, Madeline B. Books and Book People in 19th-Century America. New York: Bowker, 1978.

Tebbel, John William. A History of Book Publishing in theUnited States. 4 vols. New York: R. R. Bowker, 1972–1981.

Tryon, Warren S. Parnassus Corner: A Life of James T. Fields,Publisher to the Victorians. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963.

Winship, Michael. American Literary Publishing in the Mid-Nineteenth Century: The Business of Ticknor and Fields. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Marcy J. Dinius