University of Rochester Library Bulletin: The Derby Brothers, 19th Century Bookmen

Volume III · Winter 1948 · Number 2
The Derby Brothers: 19th Century Bookmen

In 1844 Mrs. Lezetta Derby, a widow living in upstate New York, published in a religious paper "A Mother's Advice to Her Children - Booksellers - on the Purchasing and Vending Pernicious Books." She wished that her four sons, as apostles of light in a "partly Christianized America," might "improve and exalt the moral faculties and unsubdued hearts of this intelligent but inconsistent people." Had Mrs. Derby lived to observe the subsequent career of her sons, she doubtless would have felt gratified. All became energetic and successful booksellers and publishers in a period when regional publishing possessed a more vital importance than it now enjoys, and all - with the exception of one who was cut off in mid-career - adapted their commercial bent to cultural interests which carried them beyond the limits of their chosen trade.

James Cephas Derby, the eldest and best-known of the four brothers, was born in Little Falls, New York, in 1818. A fairly complete record of his life is preserved in hisFifty Years Among Authors, Books, and Publishers (1884), a lengthy volume of memoirs containing reminiscences of a tremendous number of nineteenth-century booktrade, literary, and public celebrities. James Derby's long career began in 1833, when as a boy of fifteen he was apprenticed to the firm of H. Ivison & Co., booksellers, of Auburn, New York. He soon gained the confidence of his employer, Henry Ivison (who later made a fortune as a publisher of school books in New York City) and in 1838 was placed in full charge of the shop. Two years later he was the proprietor of his own business in Auburn, under the title of J. C. Derby & Co., with Henry Ivison contributing needed capital and acting as a silent partner. In 1844 he made his debut as a publisher by issuing an unpretentious little volume of Presbyterian conference hymns, but he did not attempt any large projects until 1848, when he took one of his clerks into partnership under the firm name of Derby & Miller. This house, which was active until the senior partner's move to New York City in 1853, printed and published, according to Derby, "more than one hundred different books, consisting of school and law publications, standard histories, biographies, and miscellaneous works of a popular nature."

One of the younger Derby brothers who served his apprenticeship under James in Auburn was George Hunter Derby, born in Little Falls in 1823. The triple imprint of the fifth edition of Samuel Parker's Journal of an Exploring Tour Beyond the Rocky Mountains (issued by J. C. Derby & Co., in Auburn, in 1846) indicates that by that time George was already in business for himself in Geneva, under the firm name of G. H. Derby & Co., with his brother James acting as silent partner. By 1849, George had moved to Buffalo, where he developed a flourishing bookstore and also published extensively, sometimes in connection with Derby & Miller of Auburn, H. W. Derby of Cincinnati, and C. L. Derby of Sandusky. The effectiveness of these combinations for purposes of distribution is evidenced by numerous double and triple imprints on the publications of each of the houses. Although a formal partnership did not exist among the four brothers, they did recognize a union of their business interests, as is shown by an advertisement in Miss C. B. Porter's The Silver Cup of Sparkling Drops, a temperance book published by George Derby in 1852. The advertisement lists "Valuable Books Published and for Sale by Messrs. Derby & Co. at Buffalo, Sandusky, Cincinnati, and Auburn."

In 1852, when the California fever was at its height, James and George Derby decided to open a branch store in the new El Dorado, and in preparation they sent a complete supply of books and stationery around the Horn by sailing ship. Before the goods arrived, however, the project was aborted by the sudden death of George, who fell a victim to the dread Asiatic cholera in Buffalo, in September, 1852. (The stock which had been sent to California later provided the nucleus of the very successful bookselling and publishing house organized in San Francisco by Hubert H. Bancroft, George Derby's brother-in-law and former clerk, since famous for his work in western history and for the library of source materials which he left to the University of California.)

James C. Derby remained in western New York for only about a year after George's death. In December, 1853, he moved to New York City and established his own publishing house at No. 8 Park Place. His business grew rapidly, and as manuscripts accumulated he engaged George Ripley as reader and, a few years later, Thomas Bailey Aldrich as assistant reader. Aldrich's first published volume of poems, The Bells, was issued by Derby in 1855. In the same year Edwin Jackson, who had gravitated to New York from Cooperstown, became a partner in the firm. The house of Derby & Jackson successfully weathered the panic of 1857, and at the time of its failure in 1861, during the turmoil of the first war year, its list of publications included more than three hundred titles.

Although J. C. Derby, like most American publishers of his time, reprinted established eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English works for which, in the absence of an international copyright law, he had to pay no royalties, many of his publications were copyrighted American books by authors well known in their day. Derby had a nose for "good selling books," and his initiative first brought before the public in book form the writings of such popular authors as "Fanny Fern" (Sarah Payson Willis) and B. P. Shillaber, the creator of "Mrs. Partington." It is difficult for a present-day reader to appreciate the appeal of a book like Fern Leaves from Fanny's Portfolio, which Derby & Miller brought out in Auburn in 1853; yet it sold over eighty thousand copies in its first year and retained its popularity for a long time. The Life and Sayings of Mrs. Partington, published by J. C. Derby in 1854, was not far behind. Derby did not have the good fortune to sponsor Uncle Tom's Cabin, although he did issue Mrs. Stowe'sThe Minister's Wooing in 1859.

James Derby spent most of the war years in Washington. In the summer of 1861 he was appointed Librarian of the Department of State by William Henry Seward, whom he had known of old in Auburn and whose Life and Public Services of John Quincy Adams (1849) had been one of Derby & Miller's early publications. In April, 1865, Derby became United States Despatch Agent at New York, and later the same year he was given an opportunity to exercise the promotional ability with which he and his younger brothers were gifted when he was named United States General Agent of the Paris Exposition of 1867.

After a decade devoted largely to public affairs, Derby turned again to the publishing business. From 1872 he was associated, for a number of years prior to his death in Brooklyn in 1892, with the New York house of D. Appleton & Co. He was in charge of the Appleton subscription-book department, an extremely important branch of the publishing business before modern transportation systems had developed and when in many sections of the country the population was too scattered to support a local bookstore. Under these conditions publishers had to depend on the services of traveling agents, who carried books to the doorsills of the remotest homes. All the Derbys employed the subscription method of publishing to advantage. In 1850 Derby & Miller published the History of All Nations by Samuel G. Goodrich ("Peter Parley"), the immensely popular author of didactic juveniles. This book, which J. C. Derby later referred to, erroneously, as the first subscription book published west of New York City, sold, as he said, in the "tens of thousands of copies." In 1851 G. H. Derby & Co. of Buffalo advertised for book agents to canvass for ten of their publications which were sold by subscription. At the same time, H. W. Derby in Cincinnati and C. L. Derby in Sandusky were continually advertising for agents to sell their books; and Derby & Jackson of New York really entered the spirit of the times in the boom year of 1856 when they announced, "20,000 Agents Wanted, to Sell in Every Town in the United States," John Bigelow's Memoir of the Life and Public Services of John Charles Fremont and R. G. Horton's Life and Public Services of James Buchanan. These were of course campaign biographies, a class of publication which has lost its importance with the development of twentieth-century communications, but which for many years provided otherwise unavailable information (and occasionally misinformation) for American voters. J. C. Derby remarked that for ten presidential elections from 1840 to 1880 he published or directed the publication of the lives of one or more of the candidates.

The careers of the two Derby brothers who followed the western emigrants' route as far as Ohio have not been recorded. Henry W. Derby, two years younger than James, first tried his fortune in Columbus, the centrally-located state capital, which in the early thirties achieved a new commercial importance with the convergence there of the Ohio Canal, which linked Lake Erie and the Ohio River, and the National Road, which crossed the state from East to West. Here, probably in 1838, Derby entered the employ of Isaac Whiting, the leading publisher and bookseller of the city, who a couple of years later issued a Log Cabin Song Book for the hard cider campaign of 1840. Finding the atmosphere congenial and prospects attractive, Derby settled into the life of the city by going into business for himself in 1840 with a stock of books he had bought from Whiting and by marrying a Columbus girl. With characteristic dash, the bridegroom arranged to have the wedding in Trinity Church. His was the first wedding ever held in a church in Columbus, and the crowd of gaping spectators was so thick that the wedding party had difficulty in making its way to the altar.

After a few years in business, Henry Derby came to realize that the Ohio River metropolis of Cincinnati offered more opportunities than Columbus for a rising young bookman. In the ante-bellum steamboating days Cincinnati was the commercial capital of the whole country west of the Alleghanies and as a publishing and booktrade center was surpassed only by Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Derby accordingly disposed of his stock and, in October, 1844, moved to Cincinnati, where he took into partnership Charles F. Bradley, who had got his experience in the house of D. Appleton & Co. The firm of H. W. Derby & Co. (Derby & Bradley for a couple of years in the late forties) became a household word in the Ohio Valley. In addition to acting as a jobbing outlet for such large eastern houses as Harpers and Appleton and to operating the largest and most elaborate bookstore in the West, H. W. Derby developed an extensive publishing business. Law books, medical books, and "miscellaneous" publications predominated in his catalogue, his law book line being unrivaled in the West. His general publishing, particularly of works of history, biography and travels, received a new impetus with the passage of the act establishing the Ohio School Library in 1853. This law, which Derby had zealously promoted, provided a tax for the support of libraries in school districts throughout the state, and the books for these collections were largely supplied by Derby from the publications of Harpers (who in 1839 had secured a monopoly to supply the New York School District libraries), Appleton, Derby & Jackson, and his own house.

In addition to issuing books of general interest, Derby also did much original publishing of western books, many of which possess historical value, during the late 1840's and the 1850's. This extensive category includes such works as Jacob Burnet's Notes on the Early Settlement of the North-western Territory, James Hall's The West; Its Commerce and Navigation, Samuel P. Hildreth's Pioneer History: Being an Account of the First Examinations of the Ohio Valley, and the Early Settlement of the Northwest Territory, and the same author's Biographical and Historical Memoirs of the Early Pioneer Settlers of Ohio. The title pages of certain copies of a number of these western publications carry the imprints of various eastern houses as well as Derby's, thus indicating that their publisher was in possession of established eastern outlets.

One of Derby's medical books which also possesses value as a source for the early study of regional culture was Daniel Drake's A Systematic Treatise ... on the Principal Diseases of the Interior Valley of North America. Dr. Drake, the author, was a force in the intellectual life of Cincinnati during the first half of the nineteenth century. As early as 1810, in his Notices Concerning Cincinnati, Drake showed a preoccupation with the relation between disease and environment, and for his major work, thePrincipal Diseases, he has recently been recognized as a pioneer in modern ecology.

Two other Derby publications, one a periodical, possess exceptional interest. Lewis Garrard's Wah-To-Yah, and the Taos Trail; or Prairie Travel and Scalp Dances, with a Look at Los Rancheros from Muleback and the Rocky Mountain Campfire is based on the adventures of the Cincinnati author when he was seventeen; it was published in 1850, when he was twenty-one. Wah-To-Yah is more than a travel book and stands unequalled in a class of American literature of which Parkman's The Oregon Trail is usually considered the masterpiece. Derby also published the earliest booktrade periodical in the country west of the mountains. It was the semi-monthly Literary Advertiser, which first appeared in 1851 as The Western Literary Advertiser and Record of American and Foreign Publications.

In 1858, after a prolonged season of prosperity, Derby sold his interests to the newly-formed house of Robert Clarke & Co. and moved east. His activities during the following years are not fully known. He went abroad with his family soon after his retirement and served for a while as United States Consul at Dusseldorf. At about this time he must have been developing the commercial interest in art which his younger brother Chauncey possessed to an even greater degree, for soon afterwards he became associated with A. T. Stewart of New York, advising the immigrant millionaire and purchasing for him many of the paintings that went into his private gallery. In December, 1860, when his brother Chauncey was directing the exhibition of the collection of the Cosmopolitan Art Association in New York, H. W. Derby opened his own gallery, the Institute of Fine Arts, at 625 Broadway. It is likely that this enterprise was a casualty of war, for a few years later Derby was traveling about the country exhibiting foreign paintings, one of which, Dubufe's "Prodigal Son," burned in Smith & Nixon's hall in Cincinnati. Derby's later life was marked by several reversals of fortune. In the late seventies he returned to Columbus, and after a few years again moved on to Cincinnati, where he erected an impressive business block, the Derby Building, which later burned. Shortly before his death in 1892, he returned to Columbus as an agent for Harpers. Yet through all his varying occupations and fortunes after his first departure from Cincinnati, he never really retired from the publishing business, as the title page imprints of a number of New York and Columbus publications bear witness.

The history of Chauncey Lyman Derby, the youngest of the Derby brothers, is obscure, except for the decade preceding the Civil War. After his training under James in Auburn, he moved west to Sandusky, Ohio, which at that time rivaled Cleveland as a lake port and was linked to Cincinnati by the first trans-state railroad in Ohio. Derby was established in his own bookstore under the style of C. L. Derby & Co. by 1851, when he was advertising for "more active young men as canvassers" as well as for "respectable girls" to work in his new book bindery. Like his brothers, C. L. Derby believed in advertising, and he was rewarded by frequent editorial puffs. In 1853, his store at No. 3 Phoenix Block was described as the place for holiday books: "On his counters will be found all the Gift Book and Annuals of the season and all the latest publications. Derby has one of the finest stores in this state, and will supply any want in the book and stationery line, from a primer to Harpers' elegant edition of the Bible."

By this time too, Derby, who had added pianofortes and melodeons to his book and stationery line, was already working into his role as a patron of the arts by adapting lottery methods to his regular business. In December, 1853, he advertised the "Bay City Art Distribution," a crude prototype of the Cosmopolitan Art Association which was to follow. Under such headings as "Splendid Pianos for Three Dollars!" and "Music and the Fine Arts," Derby offered tickets for a drawing which was to be held between Christmas and New Year's, thus "securing to every member a present for the holidays." One of the advantages of the plan was that everyone would get a prize, if not a piano, perhaps an oil painting, or, at the very least, "an Electrotype Medallion, done in silver, neatly framed behind Convex Glass."

Chauncey Derby's idea of an art lottery was not original with him, for the art union was a not uncommon phenomenon of the middle years of the century. Works of art were bought up, placed on exhibition briefly, and then "distributed" annually to the holders of lucky tickets. The American Art Union, organized in New York, was probably the first in this country. It was followed by similar organizations in Philadelphia and Cincinnati, but all these projects were short-lived, probably because of the lack of any widespread genuine interest in the arts. Realizing that the public's appetite for reading material was more dependable than its desire to possess art objects, Derby proposed to offset the weakness of earlier plans by making periodical literature available to all members. Accordingly, the Cosmopolitan Art and Literary Association (later shortened to Cosmopolitan Art Association) for a fee of three dollars supplied its members with a year's subscription to a three-dollar periodical - Harper'sGodey's Lady's Book, Putnam's, Knickerbocker, Graham's, Littell's Living Age, or one of the British quarterly reviews - as well as with the chance to win a work of art. Derby was able to make this offer by getting the magazines at reduced rates in large lots and applying the margin to the purchase of the art premiums. As a result, the Cosmopolitan Art Association had a firmer foundation and a broader appeal than its predecessors. From its beginning in 1854 until its dissolution in 1861, it had a large membership which reached a peak of more than 38,000 subscribers in the panic year of 1857.

The grand opening night of the new Cosmopolitan Gallery of Art in Sandusky fell on October 31, 1854. For a talismanic two-bit piece, presented at Derby's bookstore or at the door (members free), the public thronged to view by gaslight the collection of nearly three hundred oil paintings and statues which were to be distributed early the following year. The center of attraction was Hiram Powers' celebrated "Greek Slave," his third, which the Association had commissioned - and the details were not withheld - at a cost of more than five thousand dollars. The first annual distribution, held in Derby's Euterpean Hall, was a brilliant affair. Democratic fates presided at the drawing, and the "Slave" went to Mrs. Kate Gillespie of Brady's Bend, Pa. Mrs. Gillespie subsequently toured the country exhibiting the statue, and a couple of years later, finding transportation arrangements burdensome, she sold it at auction, where, in accordance with the desire of the members, it was repurchased by the Association and redistributed. In 1859 the "Slave" finally secured a resting place in the private gallery of A. T. Stewart, and in so doing possibly secured a comfortable commission for H. W. Derby, late of Cincinnati.

On May 17, 1855, a card in the Sandusky Daily Commercial Register announced that C. L. Derby was withdrawing from the book and publishing business to devote his entire time to the Cosmopolitan Art Association. Derby promptly expanded his sphere of influence by opening an eastern gallery in New York, where the Association subsequently purchased the Dusseldorf Gallery in 1858. Prominent public figures cheerfully lent their support to the enterprise. The twenty honorary members for 1856-57 included Washington Irving, Bayard Taylor, W. G. Simms, Mrs. Sigourney, and the governors of fourteen states. The Association continued to maintain its western galleries and headquarters for the annual drawings, however, and it was in Sandusky, on January 28, 1857, that Emerson delivered the main address, "On Beauty," for the third annual distribution.

The quarterly Cosmopolitan Art Journal first appeared in July, 1856, and two years later supplanted the other magazines offered by the Association. It was edited by Orville James Victor, who came east to New York from Sandusky to take the assignment and who about the same time married the popular writer, Metta Victoria Fuller (whose first book had been published by George H. Derby in Buffalo). In addition to sketches, verse, and art gossip, the magazine carried articles on individual painters, sculptors, and literary figures.

The Cosmopolitan Art Association felt the impact of the '57 crash in 1858-59, its fifth year of existence, when the membership fell below twenty thousand. The next two years saw a resurgence, however, and in 1860 an artist's prize fund was established to award a gold medal and a two-thousand-dollar fellowship for study abroad to the painter of a prize-winning oil to be submitted in a contest held the following year. It is doubtful whether the award ever was made. In the last number of the Cosmopolitan Art Journal (March, 1861), the editor announced that since "passing events are so momentous in character as to absorb public attention, to the exclusion of all other interests," the lists for the seventh year would be held open for subscribers until April 18. Fort Sumter's fall intervened, and the Cosmopolitan Art Association dissolved in the rising tide of sectional conflict, which engulfed the public consciousness and swept other topics from the pages of the country's periodicals and newspapers.

Little is known of Chauncey L. Derby's subsequent history, except for an unverified report that he died in New York City in 1876. Although the organization which he developed was commercial in its origin and in its principles of operation, it undoubtedly contributed to the development of the appreciation of art and literature in an adolescent republic which lacked any better means of serving this public need.