Publishing in the US, 1820–1860

Publishing saw extensive change in the United States from 1820 to 1860. Read this piece to learn about some of the innovations in this industry.

The antebellum era in the United States saw major economic, social, and technological changes that transformed how written materials were published and circulated and, in turn, significantly transformed what was published and for whom. In the early years of the United States, publishing remained largely decentralized, with small printers in various urban centers publishing (or reprinting) a diverse array of materials under frequently ad hoc arrangements with writers. By the second half of the nineteenth century, however, publishing had become an industry as the book market came to be dominated by a relatively small number of publishing houses, most of which were in New York and, to a smaller extent, Boston and Philadelphia. In what follows, I outline some of the most significant factors impinging on these and other changes leading to the development and growth of the publishing industry, suggesting some of the ways these transformations shaped the literature that was produced.

Throughout the nineteenth century, the lack of international copyright and its crippling effects on American literature framed the central complaint about the publishing industry for many American critics and writers. (See accompanying resource on the history of copyright for this subunit of the course.) While the U. S. Constitution explicitly empowered the U. S. Congress to create copyright and patent laws, and the First Congress immediately did so, strong international copyright agreements did not appear until the Berne Convention in 1886 and did not truly take hold in the U. S. until the International Copyright Treaty of 1891. The lack of international copyright law meant that while American authors and publishers could legally control the reproduction of their works in the United States (for the periods established under the copyright laws of the time), they had no such rights in other countries. More significant, according to most authors of the time, the lack of an international statute meant that British writers who had copyright for their works published in the United Kingdom did not enjoy the same rights in the U. S. While "gentlemanly" agreements sometimes guided publishers in their pricing and reproduction of works holding copyright in other countries, quite frequently publishers were driven by what they took to be market demands, focusing on getting the most popular works out to the public as quickly and as cheaply as possible. At a time when British authors such as Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens were immensely popular in the U. S., it was much more enticing to publishers to pirate (legally) their works rather than gamble an investment on or enter into a profit-sharing agreement with unproven American authors. As Meredith McGill has most fully described, this culture of reprinting of both British and American authors dominated print culture up until at least 1850, playing a significant role until the end of the century.

While many American authors blamed their struggles on the lack of an international copyright or on the low-quality of popular taste, the period between 1820 and 1860 saw the emergence of professional authors in the United States. Before 1820, only a few writers, Susannah Rowson and Washington Irving most prominently perhaps, had been able to support themselves financially through their writings alone. The growth of the literary marketplace, in both periodicals and books, enabled a far larger number, including many women, to seek a career as a writer. The emergence of professional authorship coincided with changes in the economic arrangements between publishers and authors. In 1820, most publishers neither could nor would bear the risks of publishing books in any sizable numbers; so, authors, sometimes with the help of subscribers, had to bear the risk, largely employing the publisher to produce and sell his wares for a commission. While this arrangement allowed successful writers to reap great benefits and to maintain control over their works, their successes led to more modern contracts, wherein authors would receive some payment upfront and some percentage of sales, royalties of usually 10 to 15%, in exchange for rights to the book.

With the technological and demographic changes mentioned below, magazines took off, with many of the most popular claiming subscriptions of upwards of 100,000 by 1850. With this number of subscriptions and the vibrant competition among periodicals, magazines actively sought a variety of new and interesting materials. Magazines tended to pay well – and to pay upfront – and many famous authors – Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, among others – depended on magazines economically even as they explored other genres. Out of this context arose one of the most American of literary genres, the short story. At the same time, this period marked the great expansion of the production of novels in the United States and their circulation in larger and larger numbers. Whereas fewer than 100 American novels had been published before 1820, over 800 were published in the 1840s, with even more appearing in the following decade. Despite the decreased costs brought about by technological changes, books remained relatively expensive, and with a few famous exceptions – Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) most prominently – most books and novels never achieved the immense sales of periodicals.

These changes in the literary marketplace emerged directly out of technological and social transformations. Improvements in printing and transportation technologies revolutionized publishing, allowing printers to produce (and reproduce) works much at much lower costs and get them to far-flung sellers and readers more efficiently, quickly, and cheaply. Cultural historians usually cite two specific technological break-throughs in printing. In 1800, printing still involved, as it had since the invention of the printing press, composing each page by hand with individual type and the manual pressing of the inked imprint of those pages onto paper. The stereotyping process (c. 1813) allowed printers to preserve individual pages so that they could be readily reproduced at later dates. More significant, the steam press (c. 1833) fully pushed printing into the industrial era, allowing for the rapid, mechanical production of printed sheets. This technological change – and the cheapening of the printing process – had its first major impact in the periodical press, giving rise to the penny press (see subunit for this course), daily newspapers in urban centers such as New York that catered to a broad audience both through their cheap price and through their sensationalized, up-to-date news. But these changes equally impacted the book trade, allowing publishers to publish both a greater variety of material and in larger numbers. While estimates vary, the number of titles produced skyrocketed between 1820 and 1850 (some estimate an 800% increase), with the numbers of copies in each print run increasing at an almost equal pace.

These technological improvements in printing had an even more significant impact due to what has been called "the transportation revolution". In 1800, the distances separating most Americans from urban centers contributed to local markets in printed materials and other goods. While Mason Locke, "Parson" Weems, and other book agents traveled through rural areas selling books published in Philadelphia and other urban centers, the difficulty of travel and of transporting large volumes of goods meant that, to a large extent, there was no one national print culture. With the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 (and other canals through the early decades of the century), the development of railroads, beginning in the 1830s and increasing significantly over the next two decades, and the opening of rivers and canals to steamships over the same period, getting all kinds of products from rural areas to urban centers (and vice versa) become much easier and cheaper. At the same time, the interconnected economic and technological transformation of the U. S. during this period (what has sometimes been called "the market revolution") helped promote two other social changes that further altered the literary marketplace. While the U. S. remained a largely rural nation until after the Civil War, the market and transportation revolutions helped to begin the era of mass urbanization, as the cities on the eastern seaboard, especially New York, rapidly grew, producing more consolidated large markets for publishers and new subjects (and anxieties) explored by a variety of authors. At the same time, the steady shift from a more agricultural, rural economy to a more modernized, industrialized one both fueled the public-school movements in the northern states and changed the nature of leisure time. Some historians have argued that, by the end of the antebellum era, the U. S. represented the largest literate society up to that point in history. Many of these readers, especially in more urban areas, had more time away from work than their parents and grandparents had and were disconnected from the communities and traditions that had provided the cultural bedrock of non-work activities in the past. It was these readers who made up the new mass audiences for popular works and for the literary works attempting to create a distinctly American literature.

Given these factors, Trish Loughran has recently argued that it was not until the last decades before the Civil War that a truly national print culture emerged in the United States. According to her argument, this lack of a more unified print culture helped to keep the nation together by keeping the distinct regional interests and concerns (specifically over slavery) from being fully realized. The consolidation of print culture and the ready availability of texts from across the nation, in turn, helped to bring regional differences and simmering conflicts to fruition. At the same time, in a story more frequently told by cultural historians in the past, the increasingly centralized and unified print culture of the antebellum years also spurred authors to imagine or try to produce a national literature by recovering or creating a shared past (historical romances and poetry such as Cooper's, Catharine Maria Sedgwick's, Longfellow's and Hawthorne's) or philosophical foundations for an American character (Emerson). And, as more recent critics have often emphasized, the centralization and growth of publishing also stimulated the development of diverse reading materials and audiences not just along regional lines but also in terms of interests and subject matter. With the growth and development of the literary marketplace, publishers began to create and exploit new niche audiences and tastes. In recent years, literary historians have paid increasing attention to these niches and to the way that canonical authors themselves attempted to create a space for their own works in the ever-changing publishing world of the antebellum era.

Suggested Additional Reading Materials

  • Charvat, William. Literary Publishing in America, 1790- 1850. 1959. Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1993.
  • Dinius, Marcy J. "Publishers". American History through Literature: 1820-1870. Eds. Janet Gabler-Hover and Robert Sattelmeyer. New York: Scribner, 2005. Reproduced at
  • Gilmore, Michael T. American Romanticism and the Marketplace. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1985.
  • Hall, David, gen. ed. A History of the Book in America. 5 vols. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2010. (Volumes 2 and 3 cover this period in U. S. history).
  • Loughran, Trish. The Republic in Print: Print Culture in the Age of U. S. Nation Building, 1770-1870. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2007.
  • McGill, Meredith L. American Literature and the Culture of Reprinting, 1834- 1853. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.
  • Teichgraeber III, Richard F. "Literary Marketplace". American History through Literature: 1820-1870. Eds. Janet Gabler-Hover and Robert Sattelmeyer. New York: Scribner, 2005. Reproduced at
  • 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.
  • Zboray, Ronald J. A Fictive People: Antebellum Economic Development and the American Reading Public. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1993.

Source: Saylor Academy
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Last modified: Thursday, February 18, 2021, 2:25 PM