What better way to spend a frigid Indy winter’s day than at an old book shop? That’s where I was yesterday morning… my first venture from the toasty confines of home since Flu-mageddon ’14 visited its wrath upon the household.
I made a bee-line for the “Indiana” section, as usual, and the first book to catch my eye was Indiana: It’s History Constitution and Present Government by George S. Cottman. Granted that isn’t a title that lights my soul on fire, but I do love old books and this one is nearing its century mark so I took it home and hunkered down with it, by the fireplace. Then what to my wonder eyes should appear… not Santa… but a curious publisher’s logo that looked a lot like the Indianapolis Soldier’s and Sailor’s Monument… because it is! The local logo led me to research the organization that produced the book: The Bobbs-Merrill Company Publishers.
Indianapolis? A powerhouse publisher? Indeed, this pioneering firm published numerous books of importance! There was a time when a Bobbs-Merrill book could be found in the vast majority of American homes.
It all began in 1850 when Samuel Merrill purchased an Indianapolis bookstore and then decided to begin publishing books, initially focusing on law books. Samuel died in 1855 and his son Samuel Merrill Jr. took over. Merrill Jr. successfully guided the company through the tricky Civil War years, as well as a series of name changes reflecting various business partners, including Merrill Meigs and Company, and the Bowen-Merrill Company. Finally, the company settled on the name Bobbs-Merrill in honor of the company’s long-serving director, William Conrad Bobbs.
Steady growth and prosperity were interrupted in March of 1890 when a St. Patrick’s Day fire broke out at the business. In an effort to prevent the blaze from spreading to neighboring businesses stretching from Meridian to Illinois Street, a team of firemen climbed onto the roof just as the building collapsed — killing 13 firemen and disabling several others. Despite the tragedy, Bobbs-Merrill was able to report a profit at the end of that year.
The turn of the last century marked Bobbs-Merrill’s transformation from small, local press to national publishing powerhouse. This rapid growth came with the printing of several works by fantasy writer L. Frank Baum whose 1900 book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and its many sequels, became ingrained in American culture. In addition to early Baum works, Bobbs-Merrill published James Whitcomb Riley, Ayn Rand, Richard Halliburton, and the 1929 Pulitzer-winning novel Scarlet Sister Mary by Julia Peterkin.
The Bobb’s-Merrill published works of L. Frank Baum are sought-after in collecting circles. “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” (1902) was sold more widely than any other book published by the firm, and was indeed the best selling children’s book in America between 1895 and 1965, selling upwards of 5 million copies. However, dramatic rights to the story were sold off early and Bobbs-Merrill had no claim on the motion picture rights.
Another reason for Bobbs-Merrill’s significance is the famous 1908 Bobbs-Merrill Co. v. Straus court case which centered on the book The Castaway by Hallie Erminin Rives. Bobbs-Merrill was the publisher and printed the instruction, “The price of this book at retail is $1 net. No dealer is licensed to sell it at a lower price, and a sale at a lower price will be treated as an infringement of the copyright.” However, Macy’s, who purchased large quantities at wholesale, tried selling the book at 89 cents. Bobbs-Merrill claimed an infringement of its rights but the court declared that the publisher had the right to “multiply and sell the book but could not limit its resale.” Macy’s victory established what is now known as the “first-sale doctrine” – a current key principle of American retailing.
The company entered the area of educational publishing in 1908 which is right about when the history textbook that I discovered was printed. Somehow, Bobbs-Merrill is rarely remembered today for L. Frank Baum fame… or even the court case. If you know the company at all, odds are that you recognize its name from its biggest commercial success, Joy of Cooking. This classic, found in countless American kitchens, has sold more than 18 million copies and spawned countless spin-off titles.
In 1959, Bobbs-Merrill was bought by another firm which was, in turn, subsumed by Macmillan Publishing in the 1980s.
Look on those shelves, my friends! You’ll find McGraw-Hill and Macmillan and Mandrake Press… but… What about Bobbs?
And, what about the Bobbs-Merrill Mystery?