Spies by Subscription

It’s always a particular pleasure when we add a new item that overlaps with more than one of our collections. Here’s an example of a recent addition that will be useful for researchers interested in either the Civil War or the history of printing and the book trade: a publisher’s sample book for taking subscriptions to The Spy of the Rebellion.

The practice of subscription publishing has been at work for a very long time, going back at least to the seventeenth century. The original model was designed to work around the necessity of raising the capital to publish a book: All the expenses are paid (or at least promised) up-front by interested would-be readers who don’t mind shelling out their money first and getting the book later. This still happens today at places like Kickstarter, where someone has already raised $40,000 to publish something called Dinocalypse Now.

But there was another reason for subscription publishing, and it was a particular strategy of 19th-century American publishers: Subscription publishing — which sent an army of subscription collectors out door-to-door in out-of-the-way corners of the country — brought books to new audiences. In some cases this was expressed with missionary zeal:

Ignorance everywhere raises his stupid front, and among the best weapons with which to vanquish him are books, and in the interior, with a vast number, the habit of obtaining and of using these will not be acquired unless brought to their very doors.*

It was also a good way to make money, often by selling books that appealed to many buyers’ decorative sensibilities (they were often published in seemingly luxurious, gilt-decorated bindings) rather than their intellectual curiosity.

Alan Pinkerton, who founded the famous Pinkerton agency, offered his services to the Union (particularly to George MacLellan) during the Civil War, and The Spy of the Rebellion is a hefty account of his exploits. It’s one of several autobiographical works authored by Pinkerton, and a copy has long been part of our Harris Collection on the Civil War & Slavery. And we’re now able to add a subscription book that was used to sell copies like ours.

The subscription book is on the left, the full copy on the right. In addition to offering the table of contents and a selection of text and illustrations of the volume, it includes complementary blurbs:

and a form to be filled out by interested buyers:

This copy also includes an inscription on the flyleaf — “Edith Morgan | Burnham Maine” — indicating both the type of area in which subscription-takers were most active (Burnham’s current population is around 1,100) and that this particular copy may have been used by a woman.

Whatever the case, it also includes scrapbook-style additions that don’t seem relevant to the text for sale. Recipes and “household hints” are pasted in and written in manuscript at the back of the volume:

One of the most interesting features of books like this, and one of the reasons they appeal to historians of the book, is that they demonstrate the steps by which a book like Spy of the Rebellion came into being, and point to potential that may never have been realized. At the very end of this subscription book is pasted in the spine of a leather binding, not at all like the binding of the copy we have here in the library. This is presumably the “Sheep, Library Style” binding referenced in the subscription sheet. Or maybe it’s a binding that was never offered at all.


Henry Howe, quoted in Lehmann-Haupt, The Book in America (New York: Bowker, 1951), page 250.

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