Biography and History

Publisher George Palmer Putnam (1814-1872), a self-taught genius from Maine, began his independent publishing enterprise in 1848 in New York City, after working for a bookseller and other publishers there, starting in 1829 (at the age of fifteen). Among his chief concerns as a publisher were the promotion of American literature the establishment of international copyright regulations.

During the years he worked in England, 1841-1847, while still John Wiley's partner (1841-1847) Putnam realized that the book market on both sides of the Atlantic was for English authors. Putnam and Wiley tried to promote interest in American literature by publishing such works as Caroline Kirkland's books about the West, e.g. Western Clearings (1845) and Herman Melville's first novel Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846). When Putnam broke up with Wiley in 1848 he kept the literary part of their trade list. The two had developed different priorities. Putnam's interest in publishing American literature no longer suited Wiley, who had developed a preference for technological and scientific works.

Already as Wiley's partner, Putnam had concerned himself with the need for copyright legislation. He and Wiley were the first American publishing firm to offer royalties to the author, in direct opposition to the more common practice among American publishers of selling piracies. Putnam fought for copyright legislation throughout his career. His son George Haven Putnam at the end of his biography of his father says that the copyright struggle exhausted him and may have caused his early death in 1872.

Two of the first authors to be published by Putnam, as an independent publisher, were Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe. In fact, Putnam cultivated ties with all the American authors now considered part of the canon of 19th century literature, such as James Fenimore Cooper, Richard Henry Dana, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, as well as with many still awaiting evaluation.

Putnam began publication of Putnam's Monthly Magazine in 1853. He drafted a survey letter to be sent to potential contributors, a copy of which is preserved in the scrapbook. It reads like a manifesto on behalf of American literary and intellectual history.

The financial crisis that struck the nation in 1857 together with the revelation of dishonest financial dealings within his staff forced Putnam to suspend publication of his magazine and assign his business to another company. Fortunately his good friend Washington Irving bought up and then sold back to him at cost the stereotypes of his books, so that Putnam could resume his business. Other authors were inspired by this to retain their contracts with Putnam, and within the year his publishing enterprise was flourishing again.

However, business slowed down with the outbreak of the Civil War. Putnam was forced to turn his trade list over to the firm of Hurd & Houghton which sold his books on commission from 1862 until 1966. During that period Putnam supported himself and his family by working as a civil servant, overseeing the eighth district of New York City for the Internal Revenue Service. He was fired by President Andrew Johnson in 1866 after refusing to pay an assessment in return for his job. In the wake of that disruption Putnam reestablished his publishing enterprise as G. P. Putnam & Son, or, as it was called after 1871, G.P. Putnam & Sons, and finally G.P. Putnam's Sons.

The magazine resumed publication in 1868, only to be merged finally with Scribner's Monthly in 1870. The publishing house as a family business endured into the 1930s, then became a division of a larger house.

Source: From the finding aid for C0685

  • George Palmer Putnam Collection. 1813-1888 (inclusive), 1853-1855 (bulk).

    Call Number: C0685

    Consists primarily of authors' correspondence, accompanied by related artwork, pertaining to G.P. Putnam & Co.'s publishing enterprise from before the Civil War. In addition to the correspondence and a scrapbook of miscellaneous material, the collection contains drafts of articles intended for the anthology Homes of American Authors (1853), as well as manuscript material by George Bethune and Francis Hawks.