The Pleasures of Imagination: R. & W. A. Bartow and the Book Trade in Early 19th-Century New York

Imagine this: you open the door of a small New York City bookseller and publisher on Pearl Street in the 1820s and are greeted by the smell of new leather bindings and fresh printer’s ink. Outside, nearby Franklin Square hums with activity. Welcome to the firm of R. & W. A. Bartow.

Pleasure of Imagination

R. & W. A. Bartow’s price lists boast that volumes in their British Poets series had “an elegant frontispiece and engraved title.”

Sadly, Franklin Square was later demolished, and the Bartows’ book business is long gone, but many questions linger. Why did the Bartow brothers develop an interest in the book trade and how did they finance their business? What did they publish and sell? And what was the world of book production, publishing, and selling like in New York City at that time?


Pearl Street, Between Franklin Square & Oak St., 1835. A. Weingärtner’s Lithography for D. T. Valentine’s Manual, 1859. Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library

Robert Bartow (1792­–1868) and his brother William Augustus (1794–1869) grew up on farms—first in an area of Westchester that is now part of the Bronx and later in Fishkill. By 1815, Robert was living in Manhattan, and William had moved to Richmond, Virginia. At that time, the youthful pair worked as commission merchants, acting as “agents for a number of the best manufacturers, [and] are constantly receiving papers of various qualities, which they will sell at the lowest mill prices,” according to a source cited in Bartow-Pell’s Historic Landscape Report. Presumably, the brothers made enough money to finance their move into the book trade, but this is just speculation. In any case, it is easy to see how paper merchants would move into publishing. Furthermore, Robert, in New York City, was based in a major publishing center, and William, in Virginia, was in a strategic location for the distribution of goods to Southern markets.

Robert and William were respectively only 25 and 23 years old in 1817 when they issued the first known title under their imprint and launched their publishing and bookselling business. By 1823, their younger brother George Anthony (1798–1872) had joined them. Almost all of their publications were printed between 1817 and 1823. By 1825–26, Robert and George had given up the book trade and returned to work as commission merchants. William, however, had moved in 1825 back to New York City, where he continued the bookselling operation through the 1820s.


Entrance of the Juvenile Library. Illustration from Visits to the Juvenile Library, or Knowledge Proved to Be the Source of Happiness by Eliza Fenwick, 1805, published by Tabart & Co., London. Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle, The New York Public Library. Benjamin Tabart was a Regency publisher and bookseller whose Juvenile and School Library was on New Bond Street. Like Tabart, publishers in the United States often operated as booksellers. Educational books for children were popular offerings in the American market.

American book publishing was a work in progress during the first quarter of the 19th century. Our national literary identity was still in its infancy, and booksellers and their customers continued the Colonial practice of dependence on popular British works. But some things had changed. Now, instead of hawking expensive imports, enterprising Americans took advantage of the lack of foreign copyright laws in the United States to produce a plethora of British reprints in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. Piracy was the name of the game. The absence of punishing consequences and the lure of higher profits made the British reprint trade a no-brainer. In addition, Jefferson’s Embargo Act of 1807—which restricted foreign trade during the Napoleonic Wars—and the War of 1812 encouraged Americans to rely on their own manufacturing abilities.


The Printer. Illustration from The Panorama of Professions and Trades by Edward Hazen, 1837. Most of R. & W. A. Bartow’s books were printed by J. Gray & Co. or Gray & Bunce, who took over the Bartows’ business address at 347 Pearl Street when the brothers moved down the street in 1822. It was a close-knit world.

For most of the 18th century, American printing firms shepherded publications through all stages of production, marketing, and distribution. But by the dawn of the 19th century, many in the reprint trade had become “booksellers, specializing in marketing and distribution and leaving the production to others,” according to James N. Green in A History of the Book in America. “The printer had been the central figure in the colonial book trade, but in the early national period the trade quickly came to be dominated by these new publishers.” Robert Bartow and his brothers embodied this fresh approach.

Paper-Maker and Bookbinder

The Paper-Maker, and the Bookbinder. Book production involved several tradesmen including engravers, typesetters, stereotypers (plate makers), printers, and binders. “The folding, gathering, and sewing are usually performed by females.”

The Loves of the Angels

Title page from The Loves of the Angels: A Poem by Thomas Moore, 1823. R. & W. A. & G. Bartow are among numerous co-publishers. A critic in the North American Review (April 1823) grumbled that it had “decidedly more dulness [sic] than anything he has written.”

What books were people reading in the United States? Common non-fiction genres included theology, history, biography, travel, natural history, and science. Poetry—especially British verse—was widely read. The novel had not yet reached its heyday but would soon begin to dominate the fiction market. Meanwhile, Americans enjoyed works by British novelists such as Sir Walter Scott, Oliver Goldsmith, Daniel Defoe, and Maria Edgeworth, as well as the first novels by American author James Fenimore Cooper. The bestselling novel in America for decades, after its publication in the 1790s, was Charlotte Temple, by the Anglo-American writer and educator Susanna Rowson (1762–1824). Theological and liturgical volumes—Bibles, prayer books, and hymnals—from various denominations were also in high demand. Finally, with the new republic’s emphasis on education, there was a thriving market for schoolbooks. Not surprisingly, the Bartow brothers and many of their competitors continued to publish these types of top sellers.

Americans were also aware that it was time to develop their own literary culture. Henry Wheaton addressed the New-York Atheneum—a private library—at its opening in 1824: “A purer and better taste has sprung up among us, instinctively rejecting the ambitious style which threatened to corrupt our literature even before it was formed, and demanding something besides a tame and servile imitation of the English classics.” R. & W. A. Bartow, however, generally did not publish original fiction or look ahead to the future of American literature. Instead, they played it safe with what they knew would sell.

Eastburn catalogue 1818

James Eastburn was a well-known publisher and bookseller who offered an extensive selection of books for sale at his Literary Rooms on Broadway.

Publisher-booksellers sometimes operated circulating libraries that required a subscription and charged a membership fee. James Eastburn, who was one of the co-publishers with the Bartows of The American Monthly Magazine and Critical Review, was the proprietor of the Literary Rooms, a well-known subscription library on the corner of Pine and Broadway from 1812 to 1823. John Howison (1797–1859), a Scottish author and traveler, penned this description in 1821, which also reveals his unflattering view of the philistine reading habits of New Yorkers:

Mr. Eastburn is the chief bookseller in the city, and he also keeps an establishment called the Literary Rooms, where newspapers and periodical publications, American and British, and a tolerably good library, are constantly at the command of subscribers, who do not, however, appear to frequent the place much, except to peruse the daily journals. The inhabitants of New York are too deeply engaged in commerce to read much, but there is evidently some demand for books, the most popular productions that issue from the English press being usually republished in that city, or in Philadelphia. The works of Scott, Byron . . . Mrs Opie’s Novels, and books of a similar description, meet with a ready sale.

Durand frontispiece

Asher B. Durand (1796–1886). “Silent and unseen, to pay the mournful tribute of his tears.” Frontispiece, The Pleasures of Imagination and Other Poems by Mark Akenside, published by R. & W. A. Bartow, 1819

And indeed, the market-savvy Bartow firm published a series of works by British poets with engravings by Asher B. Durand and others (discussed in a recent blog post). They also collaborated with some of their competitors on editions of ancient poetry—Ovid’s Metamorphoses and The Works of Virgil. And although R. & W. A. Bartow never independently issued a novel, they were co-publishers of four brand-new reprints published shortly after the first editions appeared in Britain: Peveril of the Peak (1823) by Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832), The Provost (1822) and The Entail (1823) by John Galt (1779–1839), and The Village of Mariendorpt (1821) by Anna Maria Porter (1778–1832), the only work by a woman that the brothers ever published.

The Bartows had close personal connections to the Episcopal Church, and their first major publication was The Book of Common Prayer, According to the Use of the Protestant Episcopal Church (1817), which they reprinted at least twice. They also published items for St. George’s Church, where they were communicants, and its rector, the Reverend James Milnor (who married Robert Bartow and Maria Lorillard in 1827).

R. & W. A. Bartow published a smattering of books in other genres, including a well-known Latin grammar, Prosodia (1821), by Manuel Álvares (1526­–1582). (The brothers had probably received a classical education like their younger sibling Edgar, who attended Mr. Barnes’s Classical School.) They also reprinted and sold several music books. In Richmond, William A. Bartow published a play called Oscar Fitz-James: A Drama in Three Acts, by “A Native of Virginia, a Youth in the 18th Year of His Age.” And Robert, William, and their brother George were co-publishers with several other firms of Book-keeping in the True Italian Form of Debtor and Creditor (1823). R. & W. A. & G. Bartow also issued a 13-volume legal reference series, The Statutes at Large, Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia. A rare copy of R. & W. A. Bartow’s Exchange List for October 1820 is in the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library at the New-York Historical Society.

The short story of R. & W. A. Bartow is just a chapter in the history of the book trade, but it helps reveal how the industry worked in early 19th-century New York.

Margaret Highland, Historian

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3 Responses to The Pleasures of Imagination: R. & W. A. Bartow and the Book Trade in Early 19th-Century New York

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