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Aspects of the Publishing History of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1851-1900

By Ronald D. Patkus and Mary C. Schlosser

“Into the emotion-charged atmosphere of mid-nineteenth-century America Uncle Tom’s Cabin exploded like a bombshell…the social impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the United States was greater than that of any book before or since.”

—Printing and the Mind of Man,
   Edited by John Carter & Peter H. Muir

From 1832 Harriet Beecher Stowe lived with her family in Cincinnati, a border city in the free state of Ohio across the river from the slave state of Kentucky; here she was exposed to all the dichotomies of freedom and slavery. The passage in 1850 of the Fugitive Slave Law led to turmoil in Ohio as free blacks and fugitives alike were seized. Stowe’s family and many of their friends had long been abolitionists, and inflamed by the injustice of the Fugitive Slave Law, Harriet began to write what were intended as a few sketches for an abolitionist newspaper. Begun as a serial in the National Era, edited by Gamaliel Bailey in Washington, D.C, Uncle Tom’s Cabin ran from June 5, 1851 to April 1, 1852, gaining an ever-increasing audience as the story progressed.

On March 20 of 1852, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was officially published. By the time the book came out an eager public was waiting to buy it, and over 10,000 copies of the two-volume work were sold in the first week. The presses ran on 24-hour schedules, and before the end of the year, 300,000 copies had been sold in the United States. The first publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, printed in two volumes, appeared in three forms: printed paper wraps, cloth cover with a central vignette stamped in gold, and a “gift” binding which had more elaborate gold stamped borders and gilt page edges. Several colors of cloth - black, purple, and brown - were used on the standard edition; gift bindings came in a greater variety of colors. The second printing bears the additional information on the title page, Tenth thousand, and subsequent printings were designated Fifteenth thousand, Twentieth thousand, etc.

A lavishly illustrated one-volume edition appeared in late 1852 in time to catch the Christmas trade, though it was dated 1853.

It is amazing to realize how quickly Uncle Tom’s Cabin was read, pirated, translated, and printed abroad. By May of 1852 (remember that the U.S. publication date was March 20), Clarke & Company had already published in London a version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin “Reprinted verbatim from the Tenth American Edition.” A flood of other English editions followed - - in parts, illustrated, unillustrated, authorized; and in every configuration - paper wraps, cloth, special bindings, etc. More than a million and a half copies were sold in England alone in the year after its publication. Many editions included introductions praising the book not only for its story but also for its abolitionist message. According to Bullen’s introduction to the 1879 Houghton Mifflin edition, Uncle Tom’s Cabin had already been translated into over 37 languages. 14 German editions appeared in 1852, and in 1853 17 French editions and 6 Portuguese editions appeared. There were no early Russian translations as the book was banned by the czars.

The publishing history of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the United States was largely governed by the copyright laws in effect at the time. Copyright could be held for 28 years, and was renewable by a living author for another 14 years. John P. Jewett, Stowe’s first publisher, held the publishing rights until 1854 when he sold out to Phillips, Sampson and Co. The book continued to appear in more or less its original formats until 1879, when the current owner of the rights, Houghton, Mifflin & Company brought out a new edition with new illustrations and other new information, copyrighted under the allowed l4 year extension. This went through a number of printings, with only a change of date on the title page, through the 1880’s and into the 1890’s. In 1892, a year before the 14 year extension was to expire, perhaps hoping to pre-empt another publisher from deciding that a new edition would be a good idea, Houghton Mifflin produced another new edition, again with new illustrations.

There were many reviews of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the United States and abroad, both for and against the book. More attention was given to the pros and cons of the slavery issue than to its literary merit, but almost everyone agreed that it was a powerful and moving book. Stowe was not prepared for the firestorm of criticism that erupted. Incensed by Southern accusations that she had imagined all the episodes described in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe, to defend her novel, dropped all her other projects to prepare A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a collection of eyewitness accounts, reproduced newspaper ads for runaway slaves, and reams of statistics and reports. The Key, too, was widely reprinted around the world. In addition to general press reviews and letters to the editors, the outrage from the South inspired the writing of more than twenty “Anti-Uncle Tom” novels, with the intent of counteracting its influence, and all showing how wonderful slave life was and how well and happy the slaves were. Such books appeared as early as July 30, 1852.

From the very beginning, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was thought to be suitable literature for children. Unrestrained by copyright, a number of special children’s versions were published in Europe from 1852 forward. In the United States, after the Civil War, the book’s popularity began to decline, and the literary establishment began to denigrate its “literary quality”, comparing it unfavorably to the writing of “high art” authors such as Henry James; it became increasingly popular as a children’s book. Once copyright had expired in 1893, many shortened children’s versions began to appear in the United States. It was also a frequent book of choice for school and Sunday school prizes.

The success of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was so immediate and widespread that it instantly inspired a number of other publications and spin-offs, such as music and poetry, advertising, a card game, and many dramatic presentations. Stowe initially refused to write or approve a dramatization of her work; this reflected her upbringing in a Calvinist home, where theater was considered unacceptable, even immoral. Nevertheless Uncle Tom’s Cabin was first dramatized in Baltimore in 1852 before the serialization had ended or the book had been published. This and later dramatizations adapted the text to suit its philosophy: pro-slavery in the South, antislavery in the North. Stowe’s themes were often degraded, and simplistic caricatures of Uncle Tom and Topsy were created. By the 1880s, the Tom shows dominated the U.S. tour market. During this period, “double” shows, similar to “three ring circuses” were introduced, complete with parades and sideshows. Interestingly, the many performances of Uncle Tom’s Cabin that sprang up without her authorization actually played a large part in making theater socially acceptable, and touring lasted well into the twentieth century.

After Stowe’s death in 1896 and with the copyright in public domain (expired 1893), there was a flood of new American editions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, both to honor Stowe and no doubt to take advantage of the sales opportunity created by the death of a famous person (one source cites nearly 30 editions in 1896 and 1897 alone). Many of the publishers continued the practice of issuing editions in all price ranges, using the same text settings, but varying illustrations, cover designs, and quality of paper. Numerous editions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin appeared in the 20th century, and like the Bible, it has never gone out of print.


Support for this publication was provided by the
Louise Seaman Bechtel, VC ’15 Childrens Literature Fund