‘Just Can’t Wait to Get on the Road Again’: Book Distribution in the U.S., Part I

When readers want to buy a book, where do they acquire it? New books can be purchased at big-box retailers like Target, Costco, or Walmart, at a chain bookstore like Barnes & Noble, at an independent bookseller, or online, likely at Amazon. Where individuals purchase books and why, has to do with cost, opportunity, or perhaps one’s personal philosophy. The way book distribution in the United States has developed illustrates how readers have arrived at these myriad options. Since the time Europeans settled in America, the following has been true: books have needed to travel to find readers. What was true in eighteenth century America as the book or Bible peddler went out on foot to shill his wares still holds today as e-businesses like Amazon eat up market share, utilizing the post office to transport goods.


Fields, Hawthorne, Ticknor,
photo by J.W. Black, c. 1863 (wiki)

In the Colonial Period’s earliest days, American book centers did not yet exist. Those interested in obtaining new reading material did so from Europe, making the earliest distribution network international waterways. In 1820, nearly two-thirds of titles available to consumers in the United States were imported from Europe. Even at mid-nineteenth century, this percentage was surprisingly close to 50%. As America began to publish and distribute her own books, her waterways, albeit national ones, remained a predominant starting point for moving them. The other way for books to reach people was by individual sellers. These booksellers might be itinerant peddlers, or they might be agents of a particular publisher. There were few Colonial book publishers, Matthew Carey and Ticknor & Fields among them. Both firms employed agents to hand-sell their books to rural Americans.

'Parson Weems' Fable', a 1939 painting by Grant Wood, depicting both Weems and his famous "Cherry Tree" story. (wiki)

‘Parson Weems’ Fable’, a 1939 painting by Grant Wood, depicting both Weems and his famous “Cherry Tree” story. (wiki)

Peddlers were the country’s earliest iteration of booksellers. Precisely because peddlers were making their way to remote towns, and doing so primarily on horseback, they generally carried all manner of goods with them. Consequently, there were few who could be considered dedicated book dealers. The notable exception to this was Parson Mason Weems, a late eighteenth and early nineteenth century figure, who resigned his position as an Episcopal clergyman to set out on the road selling books. Weems was a peddler, but procured his stock from a single Philadelphia publisher, Matthew Carey. He traveled circuitous routes and preferred port cities to inland ones, for he was able to reach these cities by boat and thus avoided having to rely on unpaved, uneven, and sometimes unsafe interior roadways. 

Weems wrote letters to Carey over his career, and one of the issues debated was what titles the peddler should stock. Because Weems moved through communities more than once, he grew to understand the disparate reading tastes of communities. He learned that mid-Atlantic and northeastern readers were more liberal and more varied in their tastes, while reading communities in southern towns preferred tamer material. To that end, Weems requested that Carey keep him stocked in titles that suited these preferences. Carey, as the publisher, was mostly indifferent to Weems’ pleas. Carey’s position was that the seller should move the stock, and not make requests for material not at hand simply to suit what  buyers believed was their preference.

Book Peddlers, 2002, bronze by Jack Morford

Book Peddlers, 2002, bronze by Jack Morford

The importance of book peddlers in the Colonial era and into the Industrial Age cannot be overstated, though there is little information to be discovered about them. Because Weems was himself so prolific a writer, we can glean some measure of what American society was about in relation to the itinerant book trade. America was a young country where a rural population was predominant, but was a country without established libraries, reliably passable roadways, or regional centers of print and learning. In this environment, itinerant booksellers were major facilitators of cultural dissemination. They were not purveyors of information exclusively, because newspapers and magazines could be sent through the mail at favorable rates. These same rates, however, would not be extended to books per se until the mid-nineteenth century.

While the spread of books correlated to the spread of reading, books were not initially an American industry and were less valued than material containing current information. This was an ostensible reason for allowing newspapers to travel by mail at fourth-class rates, while books were, for many years, not allowed to travel by mail at all. Later, when they were, books were assessed at much higher rates of postage than newspapers and magazines. Individual peddlers were the best way to move books, and they were left to negotiate the hazards of the nation’s backcountry roads at their own peril. The outcome was that living in isolated territory tended to self-perpetuate. The book trade had no reason to look outside major cities for its manufacture, and because distribution to population centers was so much less fraught with difficulty, distribution remained largely a regional concern.

Eventually, westward expansion in the first half of the nineteenth century would create towns large enough to sustain general stores, if not bookstores. These stores were intended to provide for all a community’s needs, including books. Even though books could be made available to those in America’s more remote reaches, the extent to which a large-scale distribution network was required was small. Many rural and frontier Americans worked throughout daylight hours and were unable to afford oil to light their lamps for reading at night, if they even had energy remaining for such indulgences. 


finebooksmagazine.com (CLICK on cartoon to enlarge.)

While it is true that readers could be anywhere and everywhere, it made more sense for distributors to invest time, money and effort where readers were concentrated.  America’s earliest publishers were founded in the largest population centers: New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. As regions outside the mid-Atlantic and Northeast grew, New Orleans, Cincinnati and San Francisco would also become important regional, if not national, distribution centers for books. Part II of this essay will look at the late nineteenth century, as America entered the Industrial Age, and books took to the rails.

Further reading

Eliot, Simon and Jonathan Rose, Eds.  A Companion to the History of the Book.

Gibson, Campbell. “Population of the 100 Largest Cities and Other Urban Places in the United States: 1790 to     1900.”

Gilmore, William J. Reading Becomes a Necessity of Life: Material and Cultural Life in Rural New England, 1780-1835.

Kielbowicz, Richard B. “Mere Merchandise or Vessels of Culture?: Books in the Mail, 1792-1942.”

Lacy, Creighton. The Word-Carrying Giant: The Growth of the American Bible Society (1816-1966).

Lawson, Linda and Richard B. Kielbowicz. “Library Materials in the Mail: A Policy History.”

Miller, Laura. Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption.

Sutton, Walter. The Western Book Trade: Cincinnati as a Nineteenth-Century Publishing and Book-Trade Center, Containing a Directory of Cincinnati Publishers, Book-Sellers, and Members of Allied Trades, 1796-1880, and a Bibliography.

Thompson, John B. Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century.

Wolf II, Edwin. The Book Culture of a Colonial American City: Philadelphia Books, Bookmen, and Booksellers.

Zboray, Ronald J. A Fictive People: Antebellum Economic Development and the American Reading Public.

—. “The Book Peddler and Literary Dissemination: The Case of Parson Weems.”

Where do you buy your books? Do you have a personal philosophy on book purchasing?


8 thoughts on “‘Just Can’t Wait to Get on the Road Again’: Book Distribution in the U.S., Part I

  1. I found this very interesting and am looking forward to the next installment. I’m an antiquarian bookseller who travels to book fairs in different states, so I am carrying on the peddler tradition.

      • No, I sell at book fairs and online–Advanced Book Exchange, Amazon, and Biblio. The Ga. Antiquarian Booksellers Assoc. has a book fair every Sept. at the Cobb Civic Center. My business is Toadlily Books.

  2. I get my books from all over, but my favorite source is independent bookstores. Shop locally whenever possible! I will, however, use my Kindle for books I don’t want to own physically. Oddly, I don’t use the library. Probably that’s a good thing as I like to take notes in my books.

  3. Ditto. I use lots of sources, and as a writer, I try to support other writers through book signings and independent bookstores. But, given that I have a very very long list of books I want to read and since retiring could never purchase them all (or at least all at full price, hot off the shelf), I resort at times to bookstore grab-bag sales, “friends of the library” sales, the library of course, and yep, Goodwill and other thrift stores — especially those with a good cause.

    • Indeed…and just FYI, there’s a pop-up Book Warehouse near Perimeter Mall right now, open through the end of the month. All remaindered books, all highly affordable.

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