New Patrons of the Press: Corporate Constructions of Benevolence and Obligation in Gilded-Age Subscription Publishing

This paper will examine the Pacific publishing giant A. L. Bancroft & Company. Bancroft & Company operated a five-story bookstore at 721 Market Street in San Francisco, but many of its customers likely never entered that edifice. Instead, people around the Pacific and across the western hinterland of North America ordered books they knew they wanted through the mail; to sell people books they did not yet know they wanted, however, Bancroft and others began to employ a networks of book agents who canvassed for subscriptions to a single high-end title at a time. Agents visited people at home, at work, and in the streets; they worked nearby city streets and traversed distant country roads. Due to the ephemerality of the exchange, what we know about this business practice comes from the backlash against them after aggressive publishers and agents infamously exhausted the public’s wallets, goodwill, and tolerance for hyperbole by the turn of the century. At their peak, however, these ubiquitous and formulaic encounters were likely the definitive book-buying experience for many people since the practice outpaced the creation of what we know eulogize as traditional brick-and-mortar bookstores. Book agents also offered regular, face-to-face encounters with one of the many distant companies on which many people increasingly relied in an era that followed rapid expansion. This paper examines one of the largest and best-documented subscription campaigns: Bancroft’s relentless, decade-long drive to sell thousands of subscriptions to his 39-volume historical series. Along with quarterly volumes, Bancroft’s company sent a steady stream of materials to subscribers, curating a corporate around patronage. Bancroft appeared as the altruistic patron of an important work while, ironically, the company also constructed the broader public as patrons of that work with a responsibility to support Bancroft’s contribution to the history of Pacific North America.