Nova Scotia Readers and Boston Booksellers in the Early Nineteenth Century

By Keith Grant

In the early decades of the nineteenth century, the circulation of books was a highly localized activity.[1] Although advances in steam, stereotyping, and stamps were taking place, before about 1840 in most places outside the metropole the book trade remained regional. To be sure, an extension of print culture was taking place, and books were available in the 1820s and 30s on a scale unimaginable only a few decades earlier. But this “reading revolution” was as much about hustle as technology, as publishers working with fairly traditional presses found new ways to get books into the hands of readers.

In locales like Cornwallis, Nova Scotia, it took creative effort to participate in the burgeoning world of print. Edward Manning (1766-1851) of Nova Scotia, provides an example of how, motivated by a religiously-informed sense of urgency, some people living in rural communities took the circulation of books and ideas into their own hands, inserting themselves into and extending the reach of the book trade of the Northeast. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, Manning developed a network throughout the Northeast of authors, publishers, booksellers, shippers, and readers. Colonial Nova Scotians were cosmopolitan in their reading, but to cultivate a local culture of ideas and debate they had to acquire their books by creating personal networks.

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Edward Manning Portrait, Acadia University

It is possible to reconstruct some of Manning’s book trade connections primarily through his extant correspondence (about 800 letters) and a daily journal, kept from about 1810-1846, a period that coincides with the explosion of religious print. These sources give us glimpses of commercial and religious transactions with authors in New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, Boston and PEI publishers, and magazine editors on both sides of the border. As a largely self-educated dissenting preacher in a small rural community, Manning was a bit reluctant to describe himself as “a man of abilities, and great reading,” but still he continued to cultivate his bookish network, considering it a “singular mercy to have so many valuable correspondents, and some of high standing in the literary and religious world.”[2] This post will trace the movement of books between Manning and one node in his network.

For most of two decades, to the early 1830s, Manning was a kind of part-time colporteur for the Boston publisher and bookseller, Lincoln and Edmands, a commercial relationship that extended the reach of the urban firm into an under-served rural market and that provided Manning with a reliable source of the kind of religious books he wanted to circulate in his region.

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Lincoln and Edmands trade card, ca. 1815-1820. American Antiquarian Society.

Located in Boston’s Cornhill book trades district from 1805 to 1833, Lincoln and Edmands specialized in religious books and tracts, children’s literature, and school textbooks.[3] They were in many ways typical of the localized book trade in the early decades of the nineteenth century: creatively serving niche markets in a competitive urban environment, with limited reach into the rural areas. Not until mid-century would publishing be centralized and distribution extended on a national scale. Acting as a kind of middleman, Manning was willing to take the distribution of Lincoln and Edmands titles into his own hands to ensure that evangelical books circulated in his locale, even if Nova Scotia was outside the firm’s normal orbit.[4] In 1816 the booksellers began sending multiple copies of religious titles for Manning to sell in Nova Scotia.[5] He was billed retail prices for the books, on the assumption that he had latitude to charge his buyers a small premium to cover shipping costs and his commission (though he often distributed the books at cost).[6] For the next twenty years, Manning’s diary, correspondence, and memorandum book are sprinkled with references to his book circulation on their behalf. To be sure, as a sometime colporteur, Manning’s commission bookselling was not nearly as extensive as that of the well-known Reverend Mason Weems, whom James Green described as a “one-man peripatetic distribution system.”[7] Yet for Manning, book distribution was integral to his ministry, as he attempted to create a local culture of reading.

The relationship between Manning and Lincoln and Edmands also illustrates how the distribution of free religious tracts was accomplished before the consolidation of such efforts under the umbrella of the American Tract Society.[8] In this period, the distribution of tracts was accomplished through a collaboration between booksellers and printers, voluntary societies, and individuals motivated by evangelical fervour and optimism about the power of print

Lincoln and Edmands played a significant role in the circulation of tracts in the Northeast. As early as 1811, partner Ensign Lincoln was a founding officer of Boston’s Evangelical Tract Society, annual reports of which describe tens of thousands of tracts circulating through its efforts.[9] As a firm, Lincoln and Edmands was soon putting its own presses into the cause; their catalogue for 1812 features a section headed “Boston Series of Cheap Religious Tracts,” with more than 80 titles in the series, priced cheaply and by the dozen.[10] Lincoln and Edmands sent Manning “a small assortment of Tracts for charitable distribution.”[11] In words that echoed Manning’s own sentiments on the religious significance of the distribution of print, Lincoln predicted that efforts like this would “usher in this long desired period” when “the knowledge of the Lord shall fill the earth as the waters cover the sea.”[12] Though Manning’s book distribution for Lincoln and Edmands was certainly a commercial exchange, it was not irreducibly so.

Especially in these early decades of the nineteenth century, the “reading revolution” from scarcity to abundance was not an automatic process. Indeed, book historians have noted that many of the expansions of the book business in the Anglo-American world were due to new entrepreneurial hustle, rather than the technological changes that were more widespread in application after 1840. If there was a reading revolution in places or among people for whom books remained scarce at the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was often due to the agency of people like Edward Manning, who became nodes in wider networks, taking distribution into their own hands because of what such circulation meant for them—whether a chance to participate in transatlantic debates, or to create a local reading culture, or to hasten the “general illumination” of a coming millennium, or all of the above.

Keith Grant is an Assistant Professor of History at Crandall University, and a Co-Editor of Borealia: Early Canadian History.


[1] A version of this essay was presented at a joint session of the Canadian Historical Association and the Bibliographical Society of Canada in Vancouver, June 2019.

[2] Edward Manning Journal, June 5, 1823, Esther Clark Wright Archives, Acadia University.

[3] On Lincoln and Edmands, see Martha Bartter, “Lincoln and Edmands,” in American Literary Publishing Houses, 1638-1899, ed. Peter  Dzwonkoski, Dictionary of Literary Biography (Detroit: Gale Research, 1986), 259.

[4] On publishers in cities like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia relying on “middlemen” to extend the scope of their distribution before the rise of the “mass market,” see James N. Green, “The Rise of Book Publishing,” in An Extensive Republic: Print, Culture, and Society in the New Nation, 1790-1840, ed. Robert A. Gross and Mary Kelley, History of the Book in America, vol. 2 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press / American Antiquarian Society, 2010), 127.

[5] Lincoln and Edmands, Boston, Letters to Edward Manning, Sept. 22, 1814 and April 13, 1816, Esther Clark Wright Archives, Acadia University.

[6] See David Benedict, Pawtucket, Rhode Island, Letter to Edward Manning, [1816?]. Esther Clark Wright Archives, Acadia University.

[7] Green, “Rise of Book Publishing,” 87; see 86-88.

[8] The story of tract societies in America is masterfully told in David Paul Nord, Faith in Reading: Religious Publishing and the Birth of Mass Media in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[9] “Articles of the Evangelical Tract Society, Organized in Boston, Nov. 13, 1811,” Massachusetts Baptist Missionary Magazine, vol 3, No. 4 (Dec 1811), 128.

[10] Lincoln & Edmands Catalogue of Books for sale at No. 53, Cornhill, Boston (Boston: Lincoln and Edmands, 1812), 11-13. I am grateful for the American Antiquarian Society for providing a copy of this catalogue.

[11] Lincoln & Edmands, Boston, Letter to Edward Manning, November 5, 1817, Esther Clark Wright Archives, Acadia University.

[12] Ensign Lincoln, “Evangelical Tract Society” [Annual Report], Massachusetts Baptist Missionary Magazine 4.8 (December 1815), 251.

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