The Riverside Press
By James Duncan Phillips
Vice President And Treasurer Of Houghton Mifflin Company
Read 27 April, 1926
In Hawthorne’s House of Seven Gables he makes that delightfully simple old character, Uncle Venner, say, “In two or three years longer, I shall think of putting aside business and retiring to my farm. That’s yonder — the great brick house, you know — the workhouse, most folks call it; but I mean to do my work first, and go there to be idle and enjoy myself.” That was not, however, the idea that Henry O. Houghton had when, in 1852, he moved the printing business which he was interested in from Remington Street to what had been the old Cambridge poor-house near the bank of Charles River. His idea was to make the poorhouse a busy hive of industry and a place of work and accomplishment rather than of idleness.
A story of the Riverside Press is almost inevitably a history of the life work of Mr. Houghton, so it is necessary to see why he was drawn to printing to such an extent as he was. He was bred on a farm way up at the head of the Connecticut Valley in Vermont; but in 1836, when he was thirteen years old, he was apprenticed to H. B. Stacy, the owner of the Free Press at Burlington, and for the next six years worked at the case as a compositor; not until he was nineteen did he enter the University of Vermont and gain a college education. From college he came to Boston and fell back on his trade of printer, as he missed a chance to teach, which was what he expected to do, and we just escaped losing a great printer in what might have been an average teacher. He also worked as a reporter on the Boston Traveller and did proof reading in Dickinson’s stereotype foundry. Mr. Dickinson soon sold out part of his plant, and young Houghton tried to keep going by advertising for general proof reading work at No. 3 Cornhill, Boston. In November, 1848, the real chance of his life came when Mr. Freeman, of the firm of Freeman & Bolles, offered to sell him his half of the business for $3,000. This was a large sum for the young man and was hard to find; but then as always during his lifetime he found men who believed in him. Some Boston gentlemen endorsed his note for $500, his good brother-in-law, David Scott, loaned another $500, and just at the last gasp, when it seemed as if the deal was likely to fall through, a husband of a cousin living in East Jaffrey, N. H., turned up and offered another $500, which was enough to bind the bargain.
It is a strange commentary on the change of affairs when it is realized that one of our great industries was started by capital earned on New England farms. We should hardly expect to raise the needed capital for a new industry from farmers in Hardwick, Mass., or Jaffrey, N. H., nowadays.
By March, 1849, the business had been moved out to Remington Street in Cambridge. Mr. Houghton wrote, “Have about thirty persons in our employ, are chock-full of business and hardly settled yet.” One of the old payroll books shows that in January, 1849, there were only sixteen names on the payroll, with a total of $74 per week.
In the winter of 1849-50 he had a strike. What it was about I do not know, but it worked to his advantage and was the last for nearly forty years.
Now a printer must have strong connections with customers in order to keep a busy shop running, and Mr. Houghton early looked about him. He won the esteem and the work of Mr. James Brown, who was then the moving spirit of the distinguished firm of Little, Brown & Co., then as now eminent publishers. It was at Mr. Brown’s suggestion that he rented from him the little old poorhouse opposite Mr. Brown’s bindery, and in 1852 Mr. Houghton, who was no longer associated with Mr. Bolles, established on the banks of the Charles the firm of H. O. Houghton & Co., owners of the Riverside Press. The name was suggested by Mr. Brown, but is pretty obviously the name which it should be called by. Right in the middle of the group of brick buildings which now occupy the entire block bounded by the Parkway, River Street, Blackstone Street and Albro Street, adjoining that occupied by the Cambridge Electric Light plant and the Standard Diary Factory, still stands the original brick structure of the poorhouse, but it is so overtopped by more recent structures as to be hardly discernible.
In April, 1852, when Mr. Houghton moved into the present location, there were fifty names on the payroll, which amounted to $575.22 weekly. There are fifteen times as many now, and his entire payroll is used up almost every hour.
Little, Brown & Co. steadily supplied the Press with work, but that was not enough, and Mr. Houghton was reaching out after more work. Just at this time the new and ambitious firm of Ticknor & Fields was looking about for a printer who could dress the treasures of English and American literature, which they were gathering up, in such beautiful and artistic forms as such literary excellence justified. Mr. Houghton was not satisfied with being a good printer. His taste and sense of artistic elegance in the printed page were of the very best. Beauty, not through elaborate ornament, but through simplicity, clearness and correct proportions, was his ideal. He studied types and spacing, leading and length of lines, with the enthusiasm of a master. Aldus, Bodoni, Pickering, and the other master printers contributed of course to his development of the art; but the clearness and beauty of proportion of his favorite pages are unique, and the excellence of the work of the Riverside Press today is but the continuation of the tradition he started.
This artistic work attracted the attention of a man of unique taste, Mr. O. W. Wight, who had the means to indulge his love of good books. Mr. Wight selected classic authors of whom he felt no adequate editions had been made, edited, planned, made stereotype plates according to his best taste, and then leased these plates to various publishers on a royalty basis. Mr. Houghton was the medium he selected for his work, and together they planned many beautiful books, including the famous Dickens, with Barley’s illustrations.
About 1859 Mr. Houghton made another alliance that has continued to this day. Messrs. G. & C. Merriam of Springfield, Mass., were planning a new edition of the famous Webster’s Dictionary, and the Riverside Press secured the contract. From that day to this, every one of the nice fat, comfortable dictionaries that we have all grown up with at home, at school, and in our offices, have been made at the Riverside Press. The book is circulated from the Merriam offices in Springfield, but the International, and the handy Collegiatedictionaries are all made in Cambridge. The big book is a good deal of an achievement, for it requires most skillful craftsmanship to make so large and heavy a volume durable under heavy wear.
One of the reasons for the alliance with the Merriams was that Mr. Houghton was thinking of becoming a publisher as well as a printer, and he was not blind to the fact that some of his publishing friends might not be so eager to encourage a printer who was also a competitor; so it would be well to have a few steady printing customers not in the line of publishing he intended to enter. He had met often Mr. M. M. Hurd, of the firm of Sheldon & Co., school book publishers. Mr. Hurd was anxious to devote his energies to literature rather than education, and on March 1, 1864, they organized the firm of Hurd & Houghton.
All this expansion required more labor, and expert labor which was scarce in this country. The contract labor law had not been thought of, so Mr. Houghton went to England and hunted up some ten or a dozen good binders and one printer. He paid their fares to America, and treated them so well that some of them worked for him their entire lives, and their children and grandchildren are still at work at Riverside. During this trip the intertwined H’s, which was the symbol on the title pages of the Hurd & Houghton books, was designed for him in London.
Soon after this trip to England, a young man joined the organization who was to continue with it as long as he lived, which was nearly forty years. Mr. Horace Scudder began as a reader of manuscripts; but very soon he was the editor-in-chief and had charge of the short-lived Riverside Magazine for Young People, which was too far ahead of its time to be really successful, but which brought to the house a standard collection of children’s literature which has been turned over and over and is still popular. The famous Children’s Book that all properly brought up youngsters of my tune read aloud is still sold to and treasured by the great mass of old middle class Americans who have cherished our best traditions.
Mr. Scudder was a genial, kindly man with a great feeling for children’s literature. The nature of his duties made him a cultivator and harvester of literature, rather than a writer, though he was constantly busy with his pen on those necessary, but often unnoticed contributions to good editions of great authors, the introductions, biographical sketches and notes. He did his best work as an editor, and the high tone and richness of the list of books published by Houghton Mifflin is to no small extent due to his discriminating judgment. His adaptations for children of fables, myths and legends have been a distinguished success for more than half a century. He invented the idea of using real literature in the schools in complete form, rather than the old-fashioned readers which contained little that was worth reading, but which the poor children nevertheless were forced to read and re-read ad nauseam.
When Hurd & Houghton was started, Mr. Hurd located in New York, and it was supposed that he would manage the publishing business from there, while Mr. Houghton managed, the printing at Cambridge; but it was typical of Mr. Houghton that the end he was connected with always grew. As we have seen, Mr. Scudder, the literary adviser, was in Boston, and in 1868 Mr. George H. Mifflin, a recent graduate of Harvard College, joined the Boston end. Both he and Mr. Scudder were admitted to the firm in 1872, while Mr. Houghton’s brother Albert joined the selling end in New York. Mr. Mifflin had been travelling abroad for two years after his graduation in 1865, and returned in the late autumn of 1867. With the help of a friend he secured an introduction to Mr. Houghton, and finally an interview at his Boston office, which was then in the rear of the Ticknor & Fields store, which years later became the Old Corner Book Store. Mr. Mifflin wrote, shortly before his death, a very interesting account of his connection with the business, in which he describes this interview and the routine of the office at that time.
“There was a tiny old pine desk in the farthest rear,” wrote Mr. Mifflin, “which Mr. Houghton used simply as his Boston headquarters. How well do I remember our first interview. In my journal, which I kept regularly then, I recorded my impression that he suggested to me, in his looks and manners, Abraham Lincoln. I felt myself immediately drawn to him, and I think he took a fancy to me, although no stock whatever in my ever making good in that business. How could it be otherwise? I had no experience of any kind, and of course he exaggerated my position as a supposedly well-off college graduate, rather tired of foreign travel, who thought he wanted to work but would soon tire of his job when he realized what it meant. I had no illusions as to any ability, but for many reasons I was eager to experiment. So after repeated interviews he finally consented that I should go to Riverside, and early one February morning in 1868 I found myself, according to appointment, at the office of the Riverside Press, Cambridge, at 7.30 A.M.
“At about quarter past eight Mr. Houghton, in accordance with his then custom, arrived, met me cordially, and I was sent to a desk in the counting room, and given as a first task the copying of bills, under the general charge of the bookkeeper. The life of the office was then quite simple. Mr. Houghton would appear early each morning, handle alone the mail, and then disappear through the building. At about 11 o’clock he went to Boston, where as I have said he had a desk in the rear of the Old Corner Bookstore on Bromfield Street, and later in a corner of the book-selling store of Noyes, Holmes & Co. At this office he could be found almost any day between 11.30 and 1.30, and he was always quite active in seeing customers elsewhere. He almost always returned to his home in Cambridge (which then, and till his death, was on Main Street) and dined with his family. Often he brought business friends or others with him, for he always was most hospitable. At about 3 o’clock he would reappear at Riverside and unload the results of his morning’s activities in Boston, and follow up vigorously all the details of the business, both in the office and throughout the Press. At about 5 o’clock all the letters prepared during the day were left on his office desk (which was in the corner end of the building) and he read every letter which went out from the office. This plan was continued for many years, so that practically the entire correspondence passed under his eyes.
“The clerks in the office besides myself were Mr. Allen, the bookkeeper, Mr. Walker, the superintendent, and Mr. Clarke, the correspondence clerk. (Women stenographers were unknown in those days.) This comprised the staff, as I recall it roughly, from 1868 to 1872.”
By 1878 both Mr. Hurd and Albert Houghton had retired, and the firm was carrying Boston as well as New York on its imprint, as it has ever since; but the executive management thenceforth was in Boston. Mr. Scudder only remained a member of the firm three years, as business details did not appeal to him as much as literary work.
Before the arrival of the skilled workers whom Mr. Houghton imported from England, the Press had outgrown the poorhouse, and an extension toward the river was built, then the old mansard roof structure which was familiar as the Riverside Press of fifty years ago was built across the Blackstone Street end, making a T-shaped building. A bindery had been added to the printing establishment in 1864, and much of this space was occupied by the binders. One of the features of the printing and binding trade is the need for keeping a vast amount of material in process lying about. Unlike most factories, where the work flows steadily ahead, books in all stages are constantly waiting for something to be added. The result is that they take a lot of room in the working space. This can partly be cared for by ample adjacent storage space, so a large but severely plain store house was built in an inconspicuous place by the river, and by the chance of fate now occupies the most conspicuous place in the whole plant, actually jutting out into the Parkway; but it must be remembered the Parkway ran across our back lot, we did not build this object of beauty in our front yard. As the Press lives and prospers probably you will see the spectacle of its gradually turning itself around, but very slowly after the manner of large bodies.
One of the reasons why Mr. Houghton had hesitated long before embarking in publishing, as I have said, had been his close relations with other publishers in the printing of books. These relations were sure to be jarred by his appearance as a competitor. That with Ticknor & Fields was the choicest of these relationships. The name of that firm is so much of a household word in New England that few people realize that the original partnership existed for just ten years, albeit those years were the richest of all the years for New England literature. Mr. William D. Ticknor had been the head of a firm of his name from 1834 to 1854, and in the latter year Mr. James T. Fields became his sole partner and so continued till 1864, when Mr. Ticknor died. Although Mr. Fields with other partners continued the name till 1868, it was a different organization. In 1868 it merged into Fields Osgood & Co., and in 1871 into James R. Osgood & Co., which lasted till 1878. All this bears on our subject because Ticknor & Fields and their successors finally disappeared into Houghton Mifflin Co. When Mr. William D. Ticknor died, Hurd & Houghton was just starting, and while the Ticknor & Fields organization suffered at least five reorganizations in the next fourteen years, Hurd & Houghton carried the two original partners through to the finish.
James R. Osgood & Co. was in many ways a brilliant organzation, but it had one fatal weakness. It did not have a sure and steady hand on the treasury, and a shortage of money began to be apparent. The magazines were the most salable asset, and Our Young Folks was sold to New York and became St. Nicholas. The Atlantic went next, and was bought by Mr. Houghton; and it is a curious fact that, although it was published for thirty years by Houghton Mifflin Co., it was owned by Mr. Houghton and Mr. Mifflin personally, not by the firm, and was sold by them to the Atlantic Monthly Co. in 1908.
Every Saturday went next, and was also bought by Mr. Houghton and given decent and respectable burial a few years later. Last went the North American Review to New York, and all the old Ticknor & Fields periodicals had gone. The money which the magazines brought did not settle the difficulty, and at last the old firm itself turned to the vigorous young firm that never seemed to have any financial difficulties. The merger was not without advantages on both sides; Mr. Osgood brought the great group of New England authors then, and for a long time thereafter, fully covered by copyright. Mr. Houghton brought a substantial but less brilliant publishing list, a well-equipped plant where all the books could be manufactured and stored, and better than all else sound, financial brains. All the other partners dropped out of both firms, except Mr. Houghton, Mr. Osgood and Mr. Mifflin, who went on as Houghton Osgood & Co.
But things did not go well. Too many obligations had been assumed from the Osgood firm, too much slow-selling stock had been taken over from them, and also a heliotype company that Osgood owned. Just after Christmas in 1879 when things were at their worst, the whole publishing establishment in Boston went up in smoke, and the problem was solved. The slow-moving stock was insured. Mr. Houghton’s friends, notably Mr. Lawson Valentine of New York and Mr. S. D. Warren of Boston, rallied around him but would not rally to Mr. Osgood. So Mr. Osgood retired, and out of the ashes rose Houghton Mifflin & Co. and opened offices at 4 Park Street, Boston, just forty-six years ago this year.
The combined list was almost incredibly rich in titles. All of Lowell, of Longfellow, of Whittier, of Emerson, of Holmes, of Hawthorne, of Thoreau, of Mrs. Stowe, some of Bryant and of Bayard Taylor, as well as the early works of many others later to become famous, like Aldrich, Howells, Burroughs, Sarah Orne Jewett, Henry James, and all protected by copyright for years to come! Certainly no publishing house in America has ever assembled such a collection of stars of the first magnitude.
While Mr. Osgood parted with Mr. Houghton pleasantly enough, rivalry soon sprung up. The old name of James R. Osgood & Co. was revived, and various parts of the old organization competed rather unsuccessfully with the new one for the next ten years, till the last remnants were garnered in, most of them through financial collapse; but in all the forty-six years since it was founded, every bill of the firm then founded has been paid when due, every copyright statement has been rendered on the exact date when due, and every royalty paid on the exact date, neither the day before nor the day after.
The new firm did not rest on its laurels for a moment. It couldn’t. It had to fight for its life. Nothing dies so quickly as a publishing house, once it begins to rest on its oars. The list of famous authors which I have enumerated was issued and reissued in new forms. Single volume editions of the complete poems, called “household editions,” and many volumes of library editions, usually called “Riverside editions,” appeared, and all were notable for skillful editing and skillful typography. The pages were clearly printed with good firm impression of uniform color, and the books had artistic and attractive bindings. They opened well and could be held comfortably in the hand.
A lot of new ventures were started. The American Statesmen, which are today the standard brief biographies of our leading statesmen, began to appear in 1881. In 1882 a few little paper-covered pamphlets, selling at fifteen cents each, appeared, each one containing a single great classic — first Evangeline, then The Courtship of Miles Standish, then Snowbound. It was suggested that the schools would do better to put these complete literary masterpieces before their children rather than the abbreviated selections that formed the literary hash presented in the ordinary readers. About 6,000 were sold in 1882, but the idea took, the list expanded, and twenty-five years later they were going at the rate of a million a year.
These little pamphlets must be cheap or they could not be sold, but they were made as well as they could be made. It often costs no more (except in brains) to make a book well than ill. These little books had paper covers, but the problem had been carefully studied to get a paper that would “dog ear” as little as any paper cover could be expected to. The paper in them was cheap, but it was opaque, and the right tint to look right and read easily. They were fastened together with wire staples, but it was done in such a way that they would open well and not come to pieces.
A great many other ventures were started, prospered for their appointed time, served their day well and passed out. One that deserves special mention was Elihu Vedder’s edition of Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat, produced first as a folio at $25 a volume, then as a quarto, and finally on a reduced scale. It was a most beautiful pictorial setting for a beautiful poem, and had a wide sale forty years ago.
This book had as a decoration on the title page a little picture of a boy on a river bank sailing paper boats, and Mr. Vedder had worked into the picture Mr. Houghton’s favorite motto, “Tout bien ou rien.” (Do it well or not at all.) The idea pleased Mr. Houghton, and it was used on other books; but in the autumn of 1885, Mr. Sidney L. Smith, the famous illustrator, took the idea of the boy by the river sailing boats, gave him a flute and a lamp and placed the words “The Riverside Press” below, and the colophon of Houghton Mifflin Co. had come into existence. Its form varies in innumerable styles, but always the boy sits under the tree by the river with his flute, and he has been inscribed on more volumes than ever bore the imprint of Geoffrey Tory, and all his predecessors.
Another monumental venture started in the eighties was Professor Sargent’s Silva of North America, originally issued in thirteen volumes for $300. This is an accurate and beautifully illustrated description of all the trees that grow naturally in North America, except in Mexico.
It would be wearisome to enumerate all the ventures started in that prolific period of the eighties, and we ought to turn back to the Riverside Press, where we left Mr. Mifflin copying bills after his first entry into the business. By 1871 the plant was nearly as it was in the 90’s when I joined the organization. There were about 300 employees there then, but it must be remembered that the Riverside Press was printing and binding books for a number of New York publishers, such as Charles Scribner, as well as for Ticknor & Fields’ successors and Hurd & Houghton. As Houghton Mifflin & Co.’s business increased, the increased demand on the factory was met by crowding out the outside work. From a small portion of the total product it grew to half, then three quarters, and by 1900 the Press was stretched to its utmost capacity, and practically all the work was for its own publishing departments, except for the faithful Dictionary, which was still being made.
The labor at the Press has always been an industrious group of people. Men and women cannot work on books all day long without getting curious about them, and then they begin to read, and it is remarkable how much some of the older people have read. Mr. Houghton believed in keeping his people contented, and the record for length of service has been remarkable. About a dozen years ago we checked up the 630 people in the mechanical departments, and we found that 70% of them had worked for us more than 5 years; of these 89 had been with us over 20 years, 62 over 30 years, and 45 over 40 years. That is, 196, or near 30% of the total, had a standing of over 20 years. Another interesting thing is that the sons and daughters of old employees join the force, live their lives with us, and their children take up the work. In several cases we have a third and fourth generation still with us.
An attempt has always been made to interest people of all grades in the business. One of the earliest attempts at profit sharing in this country was started in the Riverside Press and has gone on for a great many years. Personally I think that all the so-called profit sharing schemes are incorrectly named. There can be no such thing as profit sharing unless the persons involved are ready to take their share of losses as well as profits. You never heard one of these schemes called a loss sharing arrangement. I never heard of anybody who would join a loss sharing arrangement, but every investment that the ordinary person makes is really a scheme for sharing not only profits but losses. When the prudent investor distributes his holdings through many kinds of industry, it is because he knows he may be called on to share losses as well as profits, though he may not admit it even to himself.
It would neither be prudent nor permissible for the ordinary wage earner to invest the small savings of years in a business where he might lose it all, even if he worked in the business himself. The number of men even in a great business who have the data to determine and the brains to know whether the business is making or losing money is very few indeed. Often the managers deceive themselves, and certainly none of the wage workers have the faintest idea which way things are going. In view of the fact that the wage worker has no knowledge of the trend of affairs, can have only the most remote influence on the success of the concern, and, even if he were able to discern and help, has no business to invest his entire capital on one risk, what is the use of talking about profit sharing? A wage worker’s capital must be securely guaranteed not only in the capital itself, but also in a steady, sure return on his investment. This is not consistent with large profits. Profits imply risks, and the higher the profit usually the greater the risk.
Mr. Houghton’s method was to allow the people to make small loans to the business, guarantee them 6% on all amounts put in, and then give them an extra return up to 10% on all amounts of $100 or more invested for the entire year. This extra has always brought the return up to the dividends paid on the stock of the company, and that is the policy of the management.
As the company has no other indebtedness, and these employees’ loans in the credit department, as it is called, are a first charge on all the property of the printing and publishing departments equally, to more than fifty times the amount of the loans, and have never failed to earn the full interest for sixty years, it is as safe and sure as most human things. At any rate the employees believe in it, for it grew until we had to reduce the limit for loans from $1000 to $500 and it is now getting as large as the management care to be responsible for, because all feel that those loans are a sacred obligation of the company and must be carried with all safety through every storm that blows. A very considerable percentage of the employees are interested in it, and it makes for thrift, conservatism, interest in business and good will to the management. One of Mr. Ford’s publicity agents recently announced in the Outlook exactly this scheme as a great new idea of Mr. Ford’s; but unfortunately Mr. N. P. Oilman had described Mr. Houghton’s scheme in his book on Profit Sharing as a unique idea of the Riverside Press some thirty years before the wheezy little “tin Lizzie” began to block the highways.
Those who have passed along the Parkway during the last twenty-five years have probably not noticed particularly what has been going on at Riverside, but the changes have been very important. From 1871 to 1900 there were few changes. A little excrescence was added to the back of the main building for an electrotype department, and another little brick building was run out nearer Blackstone Street for sheet storage, but neither was very imposing. The making of the Parkway, however, took half our press room, so an equal amount of space was added at the other end. It was not till 1905 that real expansion began. In that year the solid square building toward River Street was built solely for the storage of books, and it now contains about as many volumes as the Widener Library. Next, a building of equal size was built at the other end of the main building to house the composition and proofreading departments more adequately. Soon the press room reached out a long arm to Black-stone Street and along it, to accommodate a lot of the largest and newest type of Miehle cylinder presses. The building program was halted by the war, but began again soon with the construction of the new bindery building along Blackstone Street. This is a large four-story reinforced concrete building, connected with the cylinder press room, and is used entirely for binding and the storage of finished school books. The cylinder press room and the new bindery make a complete unit for the manufacture of large editions of novels, school books and such other books as are manufactured in editions of 10,000 and upwards. The old bindery also connects with the cylinder press room, and with the Adams press room, where small editions are manufactured, and the work flows from them into the original shipping room.
As the business grows, the line of expansion will be along Blackstone Street and down River Street toward the Parkway on land already purchased by the company; the old buildings toward the river will be removed, and we shall be facing the main highway to Boston. This change will not be made faster than the needs of the business warrant, just for appearance, but we hope to keep our grounds as neat as any manufacturing grounds can be.
But organizations do not grow by building factories, they grow by adding men with brains, and training those men with technical skill and business experience. More important yet, they must be inspired with a desire to work, and a loyalty to the industry they cherish and serve. Mr. Mifflin had a great gift for inspiring men with enthusiasm for their chosen profession and a love of work. Men had come into the business between 1870 and 1880 and had gone out of it. Mr. Aldrich became editor of the Atlantic and a literary adviser in 1880, and resigned in 1890. Mr. James A. Kurd, a son of the original Mr. M. M. Hurd, joined the force, became a partner and was taken away by death. Mr. T. B. Ticknor was brought in in one of the mergers and continued for many years as a strong and able worker. Mr. Francis J. Garrison was for many years the confidential and efficient helper of both Mr. Houghton and Mr. Mifflin. Mr. Winthrop S. Scudder was also connected with the Press.
In 1895, when Mr. Houghton died, Mr. Mifflin had as active partners, Mr. Harry Houghton, son of the founder, and Mr. James Murray Kay. Harry Houghton was the genial but efficient active head of the Riverside Press. Mr. Kay was a delightful and companionable Scotsman, with a strong financial sense, which made him an admirable watch dog of the treasury. Two sons of that brother of Mr. Houghton senior who had been a member of Hurd & Houghton in the 70’s joined the firm in 1895, but were always connected with the New York end. Mr. Horace Scudder had succeeded Mr. Aldrich as editor of the Atlantic, but soon turned it over to the late Walter H. Page, a vigorous, kindly and inspiring man. Mr. Azariah Smith presided over the advertising department, and Mr. Henry N. Wheeler had built up the sales of the Riverside Literature Series into an educational business of considerable standing, and had added other important titles like Fiske’s History of the United States for schools.
This was a vigorous group of men in the nineties. The great New England group of authors were still largely in copyright, and were turned over and over to meet changing demands. New authors were also attached to the house: Mrs. Wiggin, Hopkinson Smith, Mrs. Deland and many others. The achievements of the house were notable, and included the starting of the famous Cambridge Edition of the Poets by Horace Scudder, which is still the standard one-volume American edition, both for library and student use.
At this tune in the background among the clerks and office boys would have been seen Mr. Edward R. Houghton, a nephew of the founder, Mr. Stephen B. Davol, the writer, and Mr. Roger L. Scaife, all recent college graduates. Mr. Houghton was connected with the printing department, Mr. Davol with the educational, the writer vibrated between editorial and educational functions, and Mr. Scaife was hi the advertising work. Soon after 1900 Mr. Ferris Greenslet joined the editorial department for general books, and Mr. Franklin S. Hoyt became editor for the educational books. Mr. Benjamin H. Ticknor specialized in the selling department, and Mr. Harrison Mifflin went out to the Press.
It was well that these men were in training, for changes came thick and fast in the next few years. Mr. Scudder died in 1902, and Mr. Page retired to found the firm of Doubleday Page & Co. Between 1904 and 1906 Mr. Wheeler, Mr. Harry Houghton, Mr. Oscar Houghton and Mr. Azariah Smith all died; so only Mr. Mifflin, Mr. Kay, Mr. Garrison and Mr. J. B. Ticknor were left of the original group. Naturally Mr. Mifflin and Mr. Kay wanted to divide the responsibility with younger men, so the business was incorporated, which obviated the danger of a large partnership interest being withdrawn at any time. Five of the young men were admitted to ownership, a substantial addition was made by them to the capital, and the new owners along with the old became members of the directorate. It was indeed fortunate for the younger men that Mr. Mifflin and Mr. Kay remained so long to guide and help them. But with the beginning of 1921, with the death of Mr. Mifflin, after more than fifty years of service, the entire control fell into the hands of the so-called younger men, who are fast passing out of that category and need to look for their own successors — can in fact already see them appearing.
During the last twenty-five years the general list of books has constantly renewed itself with many very successful books. A distinguished line of successes in fiction, from Mary Johnston to Sabatini, has regularly produced “best sellers.” A list which has given me peculiar satisfaction is the biographies, such as Mr. Thayer’s John Hay, The Education of Henry Adams, Beveridge’s Life of John Marshall and The Intimate Papers of Colonel House. In general the trade department, so-called, has kept up its end in quality and increased the business; but the most distinguished success of the last twenty-five years has been in the educational department, which is about twelve times as big as it was in 1900, and exceeds in sales all the rest of the house put together.
It has been the ambition of this department, which is presided over by Mr. Davol, Mr. Hoyt and the writer, to spread from the little paper classics out over all the fields of human knowledge. It first spread through the field of English, then history, philosophy, psychology, education and mathematics, for all types and all grades of schools. Education has been the greatest of all the American — shall I say — industries of the twentieth century, and now Houghton Mifflin Co. is one of three or four great text-book houses of the country. There are many school books whose sales make the sale of the most popular novel look diminutive. There is an average of more than two million children in each grade of school work every year. All these children must have books, but it is not the parent, or the school committee, or the school superintendent, or the teachers who take thought that on the first Tuesday in September books must be put into the hands of each one of their squirming charges on the very day school opens. A majority of these orders are sent in a week or two in advance, and not a few arrive by wire the night before, regardless of the fact that in the ordinary course of events it takes a month or six weeks to complete any edition of considerable size. But long before the teacher knows she is going to use a certain book, careful men have figured out, on the theory of averages, the possible need for every book, and have actually ordered and printed those books. We began to print the books for next September in November of last year. All this may seem very prosy and commonplace, but if there were no more books for the twenty million school children of American than the school authorities had ordered in June, the results would be dramatic enough for anybody. School books are not handled in dozens or packages, but in carload lots, 40,000 lbs. to the carload, worth $40,000 a car.
I am afraid I should apologize for my title, or rather for the way I have flitted about it, instead of giving you a chronological history of it. But the truth is chronology and statistics only seem to tell the story. It is the lives of the people that count; but if I were to wander off into the stories of the people who have given lives of faithful service to the Press, so that it in turn could serve the intellectual life of the nation, there would be no end to it. There are too many people, and too much faithful service. It was all summed up in a memorandum that came to my desk a day or two ago:
“It is recommended that John Smith be pensioned for 47 years of continuous faithful service for the Company, as he is too unwell to work.”
My thought was one of regret that he was not able to have kept on to get his gold watch for fifty years of service, as so many have done; but he has surely done his part.
This article can be found in the Proceedings of the Cambridge Historical Society Volume 19, from the year 1926.