Part 1: Henry Oscar Houghton, the Riverside Press, and book publishing in Cambridge
Welcome back to Time Travel Tuesday, a series focusing on Cambridge history illustrated with objects in our collections. In this episode, we’ll be discussing the history of printing and publishing in Cambridge. Let’s dig in!
The story of the printing industry in Cambridge begins in the earliest days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. While printing in England was tightly controlled, New Englanders largely escaped the oversight of the English companies – at least in the beginning. Early printed volumes were primarily religious texts. The Bay Psalm Book contained the versions of the Psalms sung by the colonists. First and second editions of the Psalms were printed in Massachusetts, but later editions were printed back in England, due in part to a tightening of control over the Colonies by the English.
In addition to religious texts, early Massachusetts printers published almanacs, programs, and law texts. Later, especially the period leading up to and during the American Revolution, pamphlets were popular. As printing technology grew more sophisticated, so too did the materials that came off those presses. By the turn of the 19th century, an unprecedented number of people in the newly-formed United States had access to printed materials.
Henry Oscar Houghton
Born in Vermont in 1823, Henry Houghton got his start in publishing as an apprentice typesetter in a print shop. In a letter dated November 16, 1848, he wrote to his parents:
I have recently had and offer to go into business here which seems to me very favorable. Mr. Freeman, of the firm Freeman & Bolles, who are among the best printers in the city, if not the very best, has offered to sell me one half of the office… Messrs. Little & Brown, who are the most extensive publishers of law books in New England, if not in the United States, propose to make a contract with us to do all their printing that we can do… They are building a large office in Cambridge, the rent of which is to be about half Freeman & Bolles are now paying in the city.
This was a somewhat risky venture. Houghton required notes of credit to raise the funds to buy his half of the firm, with a down payment of $100 and yearly payments of $250 thereafter. Little and Brown purchased the old alms house along the river and converted it to a printing plant, adding a steam power plant and a store room.
Printing operations at the Riverside building began in 1852 and Houghton quickly gained a reputation as a “printer of discrimination.” The Press continued to grow through the Civil War with little negative effect from the conflict, as Houghton and Company already had an extensive client list. In 1867, Houghton purchased the building from Little and Brown and undertook extensive additions, doubling the size of the plant.
As printing technology continued to advance, the printing industry continued to grow. Offset printing, a process by which the image to be printed is transferred to a rubber blanket before printing on the final surface, was first developed for printing on tin in 1875 and adapted for printing on paper in 1904. Paper making technology also advanced throughout the Industrial Revolution, with machines like the cylinder making the process faster and cheaper.
The Riverside Press was by no means the only printing company in operation in Cambridge during this period. Other printing companies of the late 19th century represented in our collections include: John Ford & Son…
Thurston, Miles, and Pritchett…
…and publisher Moses King.
Publishing is still a major industry in Cambridge. Though Houghton Mifflin eventually moved across the river to Boston, several printing and publishing companies are headquartered in Cambridge, including MIT Press, Harvard University Press, and Barefoot Press, a publisher of books for children.
Join us next month for part 2, a look at newspapers in Cambridge!
Amory, Hugh. First Impressions: Printing in Cambridge 1639-1989. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, 1989.
Ballou, Ellen B. The Building of the House: Houghton Mifflin’s Formative Years. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1970.
Cambridge Historical Commission. Survey of Architectural History in Cambridge Report Three: Cambridgeport. Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge Historical Commission, 1971.
Scudder, Horace Elisha. Henry Oscar Houghton: a Biographical Outline. Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1897.