Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Harper Brothers in 1855, A Treasure Trove of Images



"The enormous Printing, Stereotyping, Binding, and Publishing Establishment of HARPER BROTHERS, which has been for many years one of the most magnificent monuments of private enterprise which our City, and indeed our country, could boast, was entirely destroyed by fire on Saturday last,-and now lies a shapeless mass of mouldering ruins..."

So the headlines of December 12, 1853 read in The New York Times. The four brothers pose for Matthew Brady about 1860. I'm not sure which one is which.

Harper & Brothers was a prominent New York City book and magazine publishing firm which founded Harper's Magazine, and published books for decades, surviving today in the Murdoch publishing empire as HarperCollins.

James Harper and his brother John, printers by training, started their book publishing business J. & J. Harper in 1817. Their two brothers, Joseph Wesley Harper and Fletcher Harper, joined them in the mid 1820s. The company changed its name to "Harper & Brothers" in 1833. The headquarters of the publishing house were located at 331 Pearl Street, facing Franklin Square in Lower Manhattan (about where the Manhattan approach to the Brooklyn Bridge lies today).

On the night the old building burned down, the brothers met and unanimously decided to rebuild on the original location. According to the family, they ordered 20 new presses, and sent notices to the newspapers that Harper & Brothers would remain in business.

The Harper Establishment; or, How the Story Books are Made, by Jacob Abbott (1855)

On completion of the new cast-iron building housing Harper Brothers, children's author Jacob Abbott turned his talent for thorough description to explaining the mechanics of how books were produced. This heavily illustrated work explores everything from how type is made to the mechanics behind the building's wrought iron structure.

Many of the detailed engravings of the building and the machinery are linked to high-resolution versions. The first image is of the Cliff Street front. The second is a wonderfully detailed cutaway of the same building.

Of course, there are some wonderful engravings of printing and bookbinding, but also details of paper marbling, typecasting, sewing, gilding, etc. I had never heard of this book until an original 1855 printing came across ebay. I lost the auction; I had no idea what the book was worth.


Searching online I discovered there have been a couple reprints. One in 1956, and another in 2001 by Oak Knoll . The Oak Knoll edition has a very nice introduction by Joel Myerson and Chris L. Nesmith which helps place the book in context. Oak Knoll also produced theirs as a facsimile edition, which appeals to me for some reason. Long after I had made an Oak Knoll copy my own, I found the website Nineteenth Century American Children and What They Read by Pat Pflieger. At this very well done website you will find exactly that, including magazines. Many magazines and some books are reproduced at the website as text with high quality scans of any images. Harper Establishment is one such book, because of the prolific children's writer Jacob Abbott.

Of course all of the pertinent images were gathered and loaded at the American Book Trade Index for those searching out further information on publishing, book selling, and book making, etc. in America before 1900.

A big thank you to Pat Pflieger for making this wonderful book and images available to everyone.

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