Thursday, August 12, 2010

A Short History of Publishing in the U.S.

“He who first shortened the labor of copyists by device of movable types was disbanding hired armies, and cashiering most kings and senates, and creating a whole new democratic world: he had invented the art of printing.”
(Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus, 1833)

Publishing as we know it today got its start back in 1450 when German goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg, best known for the Gutenberg Bible, began printing poems and tracts using his newly invented movable-type printing press. Two centuries later the first printing press to hit the shores of the American colonies arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1638.

Although still hand-operated, this up-dated version of the Gutenberg invention could print up to 240 pages of one impression in a single hour. Stephen Daye put the press to good use when, in 1640, he printed The Whole Book of Psalmes, the first English-language book to be published in the colonies.

Philadelphia joined the Boston-Cambridge area as a center of American publishing when, in 1685, master printer William Bradford established a printing company there. His publication that year of Samuel Atkins’ almanac Kalendarium Pennsilvaniense led to one of the first cases of government censorship of the press in America when it drew the ire of Governor William Penn. Bradford was directed to print only material approved by the Pennsylvania Council.

Two years later Bradford again ran into trouble with the authorities. This time he was ordered not to print anything about Quakers unless they approved it. When he was officially reprimanded in 1689 for publishing William Penn’s original charter for Pennsylvania, Bradford threw up his hands in disgust and left the colony, returning to his birthplace in England.

In 1690 Bradford returned to Philadelphia, resumed his print and publishing business, and built the first colonial paper mill to service his printing needs. It wasn’t long before the long arm of the law descended once more on the spunky Bradford. In 1692 he published a tract, or pamphlet, that incensed the city’s Quaker community. Quaker leaders soon demanded the arrest of Bradford and John McComb, a tavern keeper who distributed the pamphlet. Both men were jailed and Bradford’s press was seized.

Bradford’s arguments for freedom of the press resulted in a split decision by the jury at his trial. Released from prison, Bradford left Philadelphia and moved to a more hospitable New York where he began publishing books as well as printing the city’s first newspaper, the New York Gazette.

Probably the best-known colonial printer/publisher was Benjamin Franklin. Franklin opened a printing operation in Philadelphia in 1728, publishing English novels in addition to the Pennsylvania Gazette and Poor Richard’s Almanack. A lover of the printed word, Franklin set up the Library Company of Philadelphia, the colonies’ first lending library, in 1731.

Although Franklin was out of the printing business by 1748, it’s fair to say the American Revolution couldn’t have taken place without the help of Philadelphia printers who published political pamphlets written by men like James Otis, John Adams, John Dickinson, and Thomas Jefferson. Stephen Hopkins’ The Rights of Colonies Examined and Thomas Paine’s Common Sense are two of the best-known works published in the form of political pamphlets prior to the Revolution.

Following the Revolution, New York City quickly became the leading publishing center in the country. In 1817, brothers James and John Harper extended their NYC printing company into a full-fledged publishing business called J & J Harper. They were joined by two other Harper brothers in the mid 1820’s, and changed the name of the company to Harper & Brothers in 1833.

Much of Harper’s early success was due to their publishing of pirated copies of books by British authors. While American authors were covered by a federal copyright law enacted in 1791, it wasn’t until the Berne Convention of 1886 was followed up by the International Copyright Act of 1891 that foreign copyright holders were protected in the U.S. Thus, British author Thomas Babington Macaulay didn’t make one cent in royalties when, prior to the 1891, Harper published and sold 400,000 copies of his History of England from the Accession of James II.

Charles Dickens was another British author who fell victim to Harper’s pirating. In 1842 Dickens journeyed to New York in an unsuccessful attempt to secure royalties from the Harper brothers. While he returned to England no richer than when he left, Dickens did gain enough material during the trip to write American Notes for Circulation. Like with his other books, Harper also pirated this one.

At the same time Harper was prospering in New York, George Palmer Putnam and Charles Scribner opened their respective publishing companies in that city. The introduction of Richard Hoe’s steam powered rotary printing press in 1843 and the change over to rolled paper for continuous feed to the presses gave these publishers an advantage over other local book printers. The three firms could print millions of pages in a single day, which meant they could mass produce books like never before. Combined with the ability to use the Erie Canal for shipping to western markets, mass production reduced overhead costs for the three publishers and allowed them to lower prices on their products.

Similar to what's happening today in the bookselling trade, the competition provided by Harper, Scribner, and Putnam put many smaller printing companies out of business. At the same time, these companies were responsible for New York out-powering Boston and Philadelphia to earn the title in 1850 of “Publishing Capital of the Nation”.


Next Wednesday: U.S. Publishing from Civil War Times to Now



  1. This promises to be a great series; thanks for putting all of the work into it!

  2. Excellent article. I look forward to reading the rest. Those Quakers were certainly a prickly lot.
    M.T. Logan

  3. It's always nice to meet another nurse here, Auntiem. I'm glad you stopped by, and I hope you have much success with your novel.

  4. Quakers may abhor the use of weapons to settle a conflict, M.T., but apparently they could fight it out verbally with the best of them back then. And usually they got their way in Pennsylvania since the colony was founded by William Penn, himself a Quaker. Ah, politics! What fun!

  5. Thanks for starting this series. I will follow with interest.