Home  »  Volume XVIII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART III  »  § 6. Relations Between Printers and Publishers

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVIII. Later National Literature, Part III.

XXIX. Book Publishers and Publishing

§ 6. Relations Between Printers and Publishers

Under modern conditions these dates would mean little or nothing, save perhaps that some venturesome printer saw an opening for a newspaper and job printing. But in the eighteenth century specialization and concentration in publication had not yet taken place, nor is it fully visible until the beginning of the second quarter of the next; for even as late as 1837 the Harpers did printing for any one who would bring it in to them, and James and Thomas Swords were pronounced as being in about 1815 the first New York bookmakers who were distinctively publishers. So in these early days, when a press was set up usually a few books were soon issued. It was a period of cheap apprentice labour, of widespread religious activity, of the formulating of new laws, and of purveying to a scattered population elementary books of an educational character. Communication was difficult, and the publisher of a book was not likely to fail to sell it because some highly organized firm at a distance might supply his limited territory. Moreover, quite frequently in a costly undertaking the publisher’s risks were minimized by the fact that the work was not put to press until he thought such a number of subscribers had been obtained as would insure him against financial loss. After the middle of the century one marked phenomenon, interrupted only during the Revolution, was the increasingly large output of classic reprints from American presses.

Therefore there sprang up towards the end of the eighteenth and at the beginning of the nineteenth century a large number of publishing centres that until the period of centralization began had fairly noteworthy careers. Reading, Lancaster, and Germantown in Pennsylvania; Brattleboro, Vermont; Hartford, Connecticut; Burlington, New Jersey; Charleston, South Carolina; Lexington, Kentucky; and Newport, Rhode Island, were early of some note, while in 1834 Hartford was said to be our largest school-book publishing centre.

The reprinting of standard literature referred to above first begins to make itself noticed about 1744. In that year was published Cicero’s Cato Major, while New York, Philadelphia, and Boston each issued an edition of Richardson’s Pamela or Virtue Rewarded, the sub-title of which, together with its British reputation for unimpeachable piety, caused thus early even a Boston publisher to risk bringing it out. As late as 1800 Mathew Carey’s printer wrote to him “if you can think of printing a Novel.”

Very early, however, graceless New York had found, in the person of Hugh Gaine, one of the most interesting of all American publishers, a producer not only of novels but of what north of Virginia at least was usually looked upon with even greater disfavour, that is, plays. In the one year of 1761 alone he put out not less than twenty-two plays, more than one of which was by a Restoration dramatist. The decorous publishers of Philadelphia and Boston followed less radical paths, reading aright the comparative conservatism of their public. Moreover, it is risking little to say that the trouble which befell Gaine during the Revolution was not all political but was acidulated by Puritan rancour over the class of his publications. Within a few years of 1761 Andrew Stewart, of Philadelphia, issued two or three plays; but in general the press of that city reflected a staid psychology, while Boston contented itself with the Puritan tenor of The Messiah, Night Thoughts, and The Day of Doom, a tenor which was not to be changed materially until the last decade of the eighteenth century.