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Booksellers of Cornhill (1828-1865), by Alan Seaburg. Free pdf, accessed through Anne Miniver Press. Go to on-line publications list to download.

Reviewed by Andrea Greenwood, Co-author with Mark Harris, An Introduction to the Unitarian and Universalist Traditions, and Affiliated Minister, First Parish of Watertown, Massachusetts, for The Journal of Unitarian Universalist History (2018)

This new publication by Alan Seaburg is a fascinating glimpse into the institutional development of Universalism in America, approached through the publishing industry and a specific neighborhood of Boston. The Rev. Seaburg, emeritus curator of manuscripts at the Andover-Harvard library at the Harvard Divinity School, takes us back to a time before there were such entities as a denominational bookstore, or a pamphlet commission, let alone a Beacon Press or a Skinner House, and paints a picture that allows us to better understand how these facets of institutional liberal religion developed. As the first state with the legal right to organize, Massachusetts led the nation in the number of Universalists in ante-bellum America, and among these Universalists were booksellers and publishers in Cornhill, Boston. Home to printers, bookbinders, paper suppliers and stationers, this street contained for a time over one hundred bookstores. In addition to denominational publishing, Cornhill was the center for anti-slavery activity in the greater Boston area. Other reform movements, such as temperance and public education, emerged from among the people gathered in these bookstores and publishing houses.

An on-line publication of 43,000 words (the equivalent of about 90 pages) and written in a folksy style that belies the prodigious research, The Booksellers of Cornhill (1828-1865) is primarily four linked biographies of major booksellers and publishers, preceded by a quick history of Boston and setting the global economic context for the industry. Seaburg also explains the geography of Cornhill, a street designed and built as a market district just after the War of 1812, which flourished throughout the nineteenth century and survived until the 1960’s, when it was completely demolished as part of an urban renewal project that created City Hall Plaza and Boston City Hall.

The resources informing this book are varied: nineteenth century biographies and memoirs, a wide range of denominational and secular newspapers, circulars of the publishing industry, church records and local histories. Seaburg scoured The Trumpet, The Trumpet and Universalist and The Ladies Repository for ads by the subjects of his study, and helpfully reprints some of them within the text.

The biographies of Thomas Whittemore (1800-1861), Benjamin Bussey Mussey (1805-1857), Abel Tompkins (1810-1863) and James Madison Usher (1814-1891) focus on their professional lives, but also give personal and family background. Except in the case of Whittemore, this is not information that is readily available elsewhere. Appended to each biography, in material that accounts for a quarter of the book, is an abbreviated list of the works published, showing the variety of books, pamphlets and periodicals, and also conveying a sense of how active each man was in multiple arenas.

Whittemore and Usher were both clergy whose careers exemplified community ministry before the category existed. After ten years in the parish setting, Whittemore gave up the pulpit in order to focus exclusively on his publishing house. As the editor and publisher of a denominational newspaper, The Trumpet and Universalist, (which had the largest circulation of any religious newspaper in Boston) Whittemore essentially created through advertising a constantly expanding “larger fellowship.” The rapidly increasing number of newspapers provided enormous geographical reach in which Whittemore could advertise pamphlets and books of interest to Universalists. He became a wealthy businessman while helping to bring thousands of people into the fold.

Hymnals especially were a tremendous revenue source, as new congregations would order them in large numbers. A denominational loyalist and activist, he hired co-religionists for his print and binding work, and he publicized the availability of other Universalist periodicals. Seaburg calls Whittemore’s reporting style “short, stocky, and pugnacious, to match his appearance,” which made me wish for more exploration of that instinct to do battle. Whittemore was friendly with and supportive of his colleagues, and remained actively involved in church life, preaching at ordinations and building dedications and wherever he was needed. Thus his Cornhill bookstore was a favored haunt of area clergy, and the center of a nascent Universalist Minister’s Association. Every Monday morning for over three decades, ministers in the greater Boston area traveled in to Cornhill to meet and discuss theology at Whittemore’s shop.

Unlike Whittemore, who converted to Universalism at age 20 after meeting Hosea Ballou, Usher grew up among Universalists, and lived for his early teen years with the minister Sylvanus Cobb. Apprenticed to a baker (and Universalist), Usher opened a successful bakery even as he planned for a life in the ministry. By the time he was 27, he was simultaneously serving a parish in Lexington and running a publishing company in Cornhill.

Usher was highly invested in ministry to youth, and his interest in the publishing field was primarily the result of his belief in the necessity of making programs and texts available for young people. As an elected representative to the House, he served on the Education Committee with Horace Mann. Usher wrote for children himself, and developed catalogs of books in print so that those who ran church schools would know what was available, and what other church schools kept in their libraries. Yet Usher’s commitment to the denomination was not limited to either youth or publishing. He gave up serving a congregation, choosing only summer ministries or pulpit supply, so that he could be available to struggling parishes and thus keep the message of Universalism alive. His publications demonstrate his commitments to the temperance, abolitionist, and Free Soil movements. He also published many works by women. Usher became the owner (but not editor) of the Trumpet after Whittemore, and subsequently purchased the Christian Freeman, merging the denominational papers.

Abel Tompkins’ path into bookselling was more direct than either Whittemore or Usher. The son of an apothecary, Tompkins began training as a bookbinder as a young teen after the death of his father. In 1830, he and his 16 year old brother joined Second Universalist, where he served as a teacher and librarian. Two years later, Tompkins, at age 22, opened a bookbinding shop on Washington Street, and his first publication was the 5th edition of A Treatise on Atonement. A few years later, Tompkins added a small bookshop to the bindery, and he began publishing his minister’s books, children’s lessons, worship resources, and annual reports. For the next quarter century, Tompkins was the specialist in Universalist publications: Not only was he responsible for a large percentage of the Sunday School books and R.E. supplies, Tompkins published many Universalist tracts and pamphlets, and kept an inventory of all the famous Universalist minister’s writings. His bookshop was, as Whittemore’s had been, a place for area clergy and Universalist leaders to convene. Seaburg includes some amusing quick character sketches and excerpts letter that allow us to eavesdrop on conversations between friends.

Like Tompkins, B.B. Mussey joined Second Universalist, where he became superintendent of the Sunday School. He had arrived in Boston from Vermont and held various labor positions until he began working in a printing firm. His first printing job was a book by Elhanan Winchester, which established a pattern. Four of the next five books Mussey published were by Universalist ministers. He also published poetry by Universalist women. Yet he did not specialize, as Tompkins did. Mussey published Unitarians, sold popular novels, reference volumes, and general titles in American politics. Like Usher, Mussey was active in Free Soil, abolitionist, and peace causes, and this was reflected in his publications. This section of the book contains details that may be included at the expense of the bigger story, which is the founding and funding of Tufts College. The establishment of the Universalist school was Mussey’s lifelong project, and his involvement ranged from obtaining the charter to assuming financial responsibilities to sending future college president Ballou 2nd to Europe to study the structure of higher education.

Seaburg tells us that in his town of Medford, James Madison Usher started a local newspaper which included a regular column of detailed observations of the natural world in a very local and time-specific environment. This is a practice I associate with Thoreau, who did purchase his journals in Cornhill. Seeing the information about Usher here prompted me to wonder about connections and influences – which was part of the point of these bookstores. They focused on interacting with the public, getting ideas into circulation, inviting dynamic change and were staffed by people fully involved in the technology, trade, and social movements of the day. This raises provocative questions about the creation of a denominational publishing house, and whether such consolidation inhibited growth.

Seaburg’s conclusion is brief. I would have liked more. But perhaps the point is to find a local bookstore, and create a gathering of interested folks, and continue the discussion. Who knows where our studies will lead? In a footnote remarking about the mysteries of hidden influence, Seaburg reveals that he lived for many years on a street named for Usher, and never knew it until he wrote this book.

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