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Material Texts: Lynne Farrington (Penn): "A Very Good Book Indeed: Selling Bibles by Subscription in Nineteenth-Century America"
Monday, September 18, 2017 - 5:15pm to 7:00pm

Class of 1978 Pavilion in the Kislak Center
6th Floor of Van-Pelt Library

In the 1840s, the trade publisher Harper and Brothers were instrumental in developing the prototype of the new, large, heavily-illustrated bibles, which came to be referred to as family bibles and would become so popular in the decades to follow. The success of the Illuminated Bible, printed over a period of years in an edition of fifty-four parts and sold to subscribers for twenty-five cents each, encouraged other publishers to consider bibles as a potentially lucrative market well worth pursuing. Among those who pursued this field were subscription publishers, who hired canvassers or book agents to travel door to door in specified territories selling a particular work directly to customers. These canvassers brought with them canvassing books, which contained sample text and images, variant bindings, a broadside advertisement containing prices and additional information about the publication, as well as blank ruled pages on which subscribers’ names, addresses, and binding choices could be written down.

This presentation will explore the publication and dissemination of these large family bibles, with titles such as New Devotional and Practical Pictorial Family Bible and The Illustrated Polyglot Family Bible. The bibles contained fancy illustrations, even chromolithographs, and special pages on which to record births, marriages, and deaths and in which to place photographs of family members. The nineteenth century gave rise as well to an increased interest in the history of the Bible and the Holy Land, and materials relating to these topics were often included in these new bibles. In addition to the variant bindings, which were elaborate and costly, buyers often were presented with other options, such as which full-page illustrations would regale their copy. The largest of the subscription publishing firms that sold these substantial family bibles was the National Publishing Company of Philadelphia, also known as the Philadelphia Bible Press, founded by Joshua R. Jones. Moreover, the audience for these bibles was not simply English speakers, but German speakers as well, for whom distinct editions were created. 

Lynne Farrington is Senior Curator, Special Collections in the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania. Among her collection responsibilities is the American Subscription Publishing Collection, comprising canvassing and sample books, books-in-parts, ephemera, and related publications. In 2002 she curated the exhibition “Agents Wanted”: Subscription Publishing in America, which remains viewable online, and has worked most recently on American Subscription Publishers and German-American readers. Her current projects include the exhibition A Raging Wit: The Life and Legacy of Jonathan Swift, scheduled to open in February 2018, and a forthcoming essay, “Angling to be Bound,” on the bookbinder Thomas Gosden and the history of piscatorial bindings on angling books.