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  • The Bentley Schema: Inside a Newly Industrialized Firm
  • Sarah Lubelski (bio)

The history of the firm of Richard Bentley and Son appears be marked by cultural tradition and patriarchal continuity. After dissolving a short-lived partnership with Henry Colburn in 1832, Richard Bentley Sr. became the sole owner of the firm, renaming Colburn and Bentley as Richard Bentley and Son. From this point onwards, the firm functioned as a family business. Richard Sr.’s son George became active in the firm in the 1850s, followed by George’s son Richard Jr. towards the end of the century.1 Profiles of the firm that appeared in the periodical press show that Bentley and Son’s public legacy was that of a literary dynasty. In Sketch, for example, the firm is referred to as an “aristocratic house” whose “literary connections have always been of the highest intellectual rank.”2 When the firm was sold to Macmillan in 1898, the Academy published a brief history of the business, which places the Bentleys among a “remarkable band of men of letters and artists.”3 Royal A. Gettmann’s history of Bentley and Son takes a similar tone, referring to the firm’s publishing program as “The March of Intellect.” 4

Beneath this narrative of a high-minded cultural institution, however, lies the story of an evolving commercial enterprise. Material contained within the publisher’s archive—which is composed of three collections housed at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), the British Library (BL), and the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA)—reveals that throughout the later nineteenth century, Bentley and Son evolved into an industrialized firm, adopting new publishing, business, and organizational practices which enabled the publishers to respond to the emerging mass market for print and Britain’s industrializing economy. A structural diagram of the firm as envisioned by George, which is held at UIUC, bears witness to the firm’s industrial evolution (see figure 1).5 While the document itself, which I refer to as the Bentley schema, is unsigned, the handwriting indicates that it is the publisher’s own work. Contextualized by additional [End Page 96] archival materials such as letters and internal documents, this visual representation of Bentley and Son’s organizational structure enables the firm to be analyzed as a microcosm of the broader publishing industry in a period of transition, illuminating how publishers adapted to the industrialization of the nineteenth-century book trade. The schema showcases how strategies that allowed publishers to respond to the demands of the literary marketplace—including appealing to expanded markets both home and abroad, implementing a clear division of labour, adopting advanced business practices, and operationalizing firm identity and history—were structurally integrated into mainstream firms.

As John Feather observes, it was in this period that British publishing became “a modern industry in every way. It took advantage of mechanised systems of production, developed highly efficient distribution arrangements based on the most up-to-date means of transport, and evolved a division of labour both between and within its various branches.”6 Indeed, the publishing environment within which Bentley and Son operated was markedly different from that of the previous century. New technologies (including the steam printing press), changes in laws and taxation (such as the end of perpetual copyright and the dissolution of the stamp and paper taxes), and developments in infrastructures (notably the improvements to the railway systems), transformed the commercial print trade, leading to increased production rates, cheaper manufacturing and retail costs, and greater distribution capabilities. The publishing industry adopted new methods of labour organization to optimize this heightened productive capacity. Industrial division of labour, which breaks down manufacturing processes into separate operations to be performed by different workers, was applied to physical and mental labour alike in the nineteenth century; Jennifer Ruth notes that both have been routinized and subsumed under capital.7 On a macroscale, large firms orchestrated the process of print production. Writers, printers, binders, and other outside workers were contracted to supply print product. Within the firms themselves, the publishing process was broken down into several distinct stages, reflecting a capitalist and corporate model of publishing and bookselling. The publishing houses that survived the...


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