Pirates, Shipwrecks, and Comic Almanacs: Charles Ellms Packages Books in Nineteenth-Century America

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BETWEEN 1890 and 1920, Boston was at the center of a movement that was establishing new standards for excellence in modern typography and bookmaking. This new, modern printing style was in part a matter of aesthetics--inspired by the ideas of John Ruskin, William Morris, and Charles Eliot Norton--but also depended on changing technologies: mechanical typesetting and the proliferation of proprietary typefaces, photomechanical methods for reproducing images, the substitution of cylinder for flat-bed printing machines, the development of standard, named brands of paper. In many ways, the genius of an Updike or a Dwiggins was the skill with which they married these new technologies to their aesthetic sensibilities.

But it also worth looking back to an earlier moment, another period of innovation in bookmaking, the 1830s. This decade saw the general adoption of stereotype plates, flat-bed printing machines, machine-made paper, and publishers' cloth-covered, cased bindings--the emergence of what I have referred to as the "industrial book." And in Boston, during the 1830s, an obscure publisher named Charles Ellms also managed to show a genius for adapting those new technologies in ways that produced books that even today strike us as remarkable.

Charles Ellms was born on 21 June 1805, a native of Scituate, a small town on the South Shore of Massachusetts Bay. He was the second child and elder son of Captain Charles Ellms, of whom it is recorded that in 1813 at age forty he was killed by lightning while sitting in his house with his youngest child in his arms. (1) We can only speculate what effect this event had on the imagination of his eight-year-old son, but perhaps it explains some of his later interest in disaster and shipwreck. In any case, the son chose a career in the book trades rather than at sea: he moved to Boston as a child, attended a private school there, and is first listed in the Boston directory of 1828 as Charles Ellms, "stationer," at 91 Market Street. (2) Melvin Lord, in an unpublished chronicle of the Boston book trade, comments briefly: "Charles Ellms, was a binder by trade and a retail dealer in books and stationery; his stand being on the corner of Court and Market Streets: not many years in business." (1a) In an 1830 advertisement Ellms describes himself as a "stationer, bookseller and account book manufacturer," now at the corner of Court Street and Cornhill, "under the New-England Museum." Among the many items he claims to have "constantly for sale" are school and account books, stationery, fancy goods, water colors, maps, fine cutlery, soaps, foreign and American paper, drawing paper, brushes, morocco work, cards, quills, and ink. He was also the agent for Emerson's razor straps and offered to execute bookbinding in all its branches "with neatness and despatch." (2a) Nothing particularly unusual here, and nothing to hint at Ellms's true talent as a publisher, compiler, and designer of books--what today we call "book packaging."


The earliest publications of Charles Ellms that I have discovered are also nothing unusual. They are two pamphlets that print an account of the trials and convictions resulting from the murder of Captain Joseph White of Salem, Mass., on 6 April 1830. Nothing about these two pamphlets makes them stand out from the ten other recorded accounts of this murder trial, nor from the hundreds of other pamphlets that make up this once popular sensational genre. (3a) Perhaps it was the victim's seafaring past that attracted Ellms's attention, for he seems never to have published another trial pamphlet.

Two further Ellms publications of 1830 are more interesting, however. Both almanacs, these are The United States Working Man's Almanack. And Farmer's and Mechanick's Every Day Book and The American Comic Almanac for 1831 with Whims, Scraps and Oddities! [Fig. 1]. They are printed in part from the same setting of type, slightly altered, and imprints of both point to a connection with the editors of the Boston Working Man's Advocate. …