- An Empire of Print: The New York Publishing Trade in the Early American Republic by Steven Carl Smith
The United States saw a dramatic expansion of printing in the 1830s, ushered in by changes in technology and improvements in transportation. The building of the Erie Canal opened new transportation routes to the interior that would consolidate New York's dominance of a publishing business being radically transformed by industrialization. Mechanization came to the production of paper, simplifying the process and significantly lowering cost. The cylindrical steam press, which first appeared in the United States at the New York Daily Advertiser in 1825, would exponentially increase the speed and quantity of printing, while the introduction of stereotyped plates would radically disrupt the costly and slow process of setting type. Such changes would produce by the 1830s and 1840s a national market that offered readers access to diverse and inexpensive penny papers, tracts, sensation novels, and much else.
As Steven Carl Smith argues in his new book on the New York print trade in early America, as the publishing business developed, a number of individuals in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries created a national print market well before the emergence of a modern publishing industry. Through five case studies of individuals who built the city's print trade amid the economic and political upheavals of the Revolution and the early national period, An Empire of Print explores the "gradual development of local, regional, and national distribution networks" through which an American book trade delivered books "to the masses" (2, 3). Relying primarily on financial records, business correspondence, and newspapers, Smith seeks to better understand the political values and economic [End Page 977] motives of entrepreneurs who "coordinated the financing, and dissemination of Print in the Early Republic, evolving well beyond their traditional roles as 'printers' and 'booksellers' into 'publishers' who focused on marketing and distribution while outsourcing the labor of producing a book to local job printers" (3). In shedding new light on trade relationships and business practices of the print trade in New York, this book argues for the city's larger share in a story of early American print typically dominated by Philadelphia and Boston. So too, in the detail its case studies bring to careers in the New York book trade, it illuminates sites of enterprise that flourished through intercity and intrastate networks of commerce and exchange: government printing, the bookshop, literary fairs, and the wholesale book trade.
The first chapter follows Samuel Loudon's successes in the print trade during and after the American Revolution. Loudon was a Scottish-born immigrant who opened a short-lived general store in lower Manhattan in 1753, which was followed by a shop for maritime goods in 1857, which evolved into a bookstore in December 1771, selling a variety of books and stationery. Loudon opened the city's second circulating library two years later, catering to a burgeoning literary culture also served by the New York Society Library, founded in 1754. In 1775, without training as a printer's apprentice, Loudon added a printing press, and in 1775 established a newspaper, the New York Packet, with which he would shrewdly navigate a dangerous political landscape. Joining other Manhattan printers who fled British troops, Loudon settled for the duration of war in Fishkill, where the Provincial Congress had decided to meet, only to return to Manhattan in 1783, where he would subsidize his newspaper through advertising and job printing. From 1785 to 1790, he took on with his brother the lucrative state printer's job, which entailed publishing laws and proceedings on short notice, and required him to follow the legislature as it moved to Poughkeepsie, Albany, and back to Manhattan, with equipment, journeymen, and families in tow. Foregrounding archival evidence on business practices, the chapter also details the pricing of advertisements.
Subsequent chapters document other pathways into the book trade in post-Revolutionary New York. Chapter 2 examines the publication of a New York edition of William Gordon's...