A history of the publishing company written for a trade journal

In 1907, their name was changed to Lea and Febiger but it was still the same firm that Mathew Carey had started over one hundred years before in Philadelphia. Although the name had been changed, it still had a history of fine publishing behind it thus, making M. Carey and Sons, nee Carey and Lea, one of the most important and influential publishing houses of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Mathew Carey started many practices that have since become industry standards, including distribution and exchange, proofreading and road salesmen. Herewith, you will find an account of the men behind the firm and the firm behind the men. Part one is a look at the three most influential men in the house's history and the road they took into publishing. Part two is a look at the house, what it has done for publishing and the strides taken during that time to make the industry what it is today.


MATHEW CAREY was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1760. He came from a well-to-do family and up until the age of fifteen, he lived an easy life. At fifteen, he decided tha he wanted to become a printer. Balking at his father's desires for his son's future, he was apprenticed out to a local printing firm. At this time, the political rule of thumb in Ireland was Britain's English Penal Code. Then, as now, many of the populace harbored resentment over this reign. Carey, being one of them, used the printing facilities at hand to publish and distribute anti-British pamphlets. One of these pamphlets reached the British government and, in order to escape imprisonment, Carey was smuggled out of Ireland and fled to Europe. He travelled the continent where he met such luminaries of the day as Benjamin Franklin and his friend, Marquis de LaFayette. A year later, he returned to Dublin and continued to issue radical pamphlets including The Freeman's Journal and The Volunteer's Journal. This time he was less lucky though and was thrown in jail. In 1782, at twenty two years old, he was released from jail. Realizing there was nothing left for him in Dublin, he packed his bags and sailed for America.

Alighting from the ship in Philadelphia, the current seat of the United States government, Carey got a job with the local newspaper, The Pennsylvania Herald. His job was to report on the progress of legislative debates; this put him in good standing with many prominent Americans of the time including General George Washington. In 1784, Carey again met up with the Marquis de LaFayette, who was staying at Mount Vernon. LaFayette gave Carey $400 to begin his own newspaper. For the next six years, he published and edited The American Museum. In 1790 he branched out into book publishing, his first book being the American edition of the Douay Bible. On January 1, 1822, Carey retired from the firm and the business was bought by his son, Henry Casey Carey, and son-in-law, Isaac Lea.

HENRY CHARLES CAREY was born in 1793. Being born into the Carey family, he was exposed to his future trade early in life. Although Henry had very little schooling, he read constantly and enjoyed it immensely. He became a bookseller at nine years old, when at the first literary fair in America, he was given books by his father to sell. Attracting much attention at the fair, the industry started referring to him as the "bookseller in miniature."

In 1805 at twelve years old, Henry spent the summer in Baltimore. He was sent there by his father to manage The American Museum's branch at 229 Market Street. In 1808, due to his learning experiences there, Carey was made responsible for all the financial dealings of the firm. In 1817, the name of the firm was changed to M. Carey and Son and Henry Carey was made a junior partner. It was at this point that Mathew Carey's attentions turned to civic enterprises and he seldom visited the company. Henry took complete control and, under his management, the business expanded. They established new markets in other parts of the country, selected titles to publish from foreign markets and published a greater variety of material including multi-volume sets. On January 1, 1822, legal control of the firm was switched to Henry Carey and Henry and his brother-in-law, Isaac Lea, became partners.

ISAAC LEA was born in 1792 to a Quaker family in Wilmington, Delaware. In 1807, he moved to Philadelphia to work in his brother's importing firm. While there, Lea fostered an interest in the natural sciences and in 1815 became a member of the Academy of Natural Sciences. In 1818, he published the first of 279 articles in the organization's monthly journal ("An Account Of The Minerals At Present Known To Exist In The Vicinity Of Philadelphia"). In 1821, Lea married Mathew Carey's daughter, Frances, and Henry offered Isaac his former position as junior partner and the firms name was changed to M. Carey and Sons.

As a publisher, Lea was never very good; Henry was imaginative and assertive while Isaac was considered stable, tolerant and self-effacing. But these two men together headed one of the most influential publishing houses in the history of publishing.


M. Carey and Sons led the way in many publishing ventures that today are considered integral parts of the process. They hired an English agent to send preview copies of English titles to America; they sent salesmen on the road to "pitch their wares"; they set up a book distriubtion/exchange program and they were the first to publish an encyclopaedia and a literary annual. Although some of these practices had, how shall we say, "shady" beginnings, the ultimate outcome was a growth spurt to the industry.

In the early 1800s, there was an effort among publishers to be the first to publish English works in America. Why? Money and prestige. Out of a desire for increased profits, small publishers pirated these English works; they did not pay royalties to the authors or the original publishers. (The wide expanse of ocean made this practice very easy.) English books also got more attention because the literary journals came out of England. Because all publishing houses in America took part in the pirating, the main objective was to be the first to publish. In 1817, M. Carey and Son wrote to Benjamin Longman of London stating their desire to receive early sheets (printed but unbound copies) of new English works. Longman was to send them by boat and Carey was to pay Longman 75 pounds for his services. In 1823 Carey wrote the following letter:

We have recieved Quentin Durward most handsomely and have Game completely in our hands this time. In 28 hours after receiving it, we had 1500 copies off and ready to go, and the whole Edition is now nearly distributed. In two days we shall publish it here and in New York, and the Pirates may print it as soon as they please. The opposition edition will be out in about 48 hours after they have one of our copies but we shall have complete and entire possession of every market in the country for a short time.

One of the big reasons for the increase in book sales was the move by M. Carey to send out "hawkers." These salesmen travelled to outlying and hard-to-reach areas and sold their goods to farmers and frontiersmen. In 1792, Parson Mason Locke Weems, the most successful of all hawkers, began to sell books for the Carey firm. Weems and Carey had a very long and profitable relationship including the fact that Weems became one of the imprint's most profitable authors.

One of the main drawbacks of publishing at this time was the distribution system. The three major publishing centers (New York, Boston and Philadelphia) were swamped with titles while other less populated areas were understocked. Mathew Carey, seeing this incongruity, formed the American Company of Booksellers. This initial attempt at an exchange among booksellers failed due to internal politics and indecision on topics such as discounts, expenses, etc. In 1823, Henry Carey attempted a new solution. He started a Book Trade Sale which brought together booksellers from all over to a place where they could buy books in quantity to distribute in their towns. This sale served as a wholesale outlet for current titles but was also used to rid the companies of unsalable stock, old type, stationery and other useless items. With this, Carey moved book sales out of the major metropolitan centers and increased the profit margin for the industry as a whole.

In 1822, M. Carey and Sons became the American agent for Forget-Me-Not, a British literary annual that contained original stories and poems and was printed on fine paper, well-bound with illustrations. This was the perfect gift and became a very successful commodity. In 1825, Carey took it upon himself to start his own literary annual and published The Atlantic Souvenir: A Christmas And New Year's Offering. The first edition of 2000 copies sold out immediately and the book went back to press. Today, the popularity of such litrary works has waned in the wake of such weekly magazines as The New Yorker and Vanity Fair but, it was M. Carey and Sons who had the foresight to bring this concept to the United States Of America.

In 1828, Francis Lieber offered to translate a German encyclopaedia for M. Carey and Sons to publish in America. Carey enthusiastically agreed and gave Lieber complete artistic control. Seventeen months after Lieber's offer, volume one of the Encyclopaedia Americana was published. The completed work had over 8000 pages, 20000 articles and 7000000 words. It sold for $32.50 per set and over 100000 sets were sold. M. Carey had set the standard for years to come.

In 1838 Henry Charles Carey retired and the firm's position in the industry preceeded to decline. With the decline of the firm came the ultimate decline of Philadelphia as the publishing center of the United States. It was well-grounded that M. Carey and Sons had made Philadelphia the publishing center of the country in the early 1800s. And it was the accomplishments noted that made M. Carey and Sons the leading publishing house in Philadelphia.

 Maintained and copyrighted 1994-2001 by Michael Teger.