Henry Altemus Company


History & Overview



Henry Altemus and the Henry Altemus Company (1842-1936) was a popular and prolific Philadelphia publisher which started as a bookbinder and evolved into a publisher of photographic albums, bibles, decorative reprints of fiction, religious and moralistic books, juvenile series books, fairy tales, puzzle books, etc.

Joseph T. Altemus, Henry Altemus’ father, began book binding in the 1820’s at 24 Cherry Street in Philadelphia. Apparently he had apprenticed with his uncle, Shadrach Taylor, for a number of years before setting out on his own. The details of his involvement with his uncle and the question of whether he took over his uncle’s business at a later date is unclear. The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, Volume 80, No. 2, 1986 (page 179) has an excellent article by Mary Parke Johnson that outlines the difficulties of determining the aforementioned point.

Joseph moved numerous times over the next couple of decades while growing his bookbindery business. In 1842 he along with his brother Samuel Altemus officially founded their own company, Altemus & Co. He moved to 44 North Fourth Street in 1846 and the company remained there for at least the next 15 years. Joseph eventually became well known for the quality of his bindings and his innovative development of binding tools. He bound books and Bibles mainly for local Philadelphia companies; E.H. Butler and Grigg and Elliot to name a couple. His reputation however must have been solid since he also bound for Appleton, Leavitt and Allen of New York and William Smith of London.

A number of examples from the early 1850's have been found. These are beautiful ornate books- See: http://henryaltemus.com/publications/bindery.htm. It is somewhat hard to identify the Altemus bindings since there frequently is no Altemus name on the book or within the book.

In December, 1853 Joseph Altemus contracted typhoid fever and passed away. His son Henry took over the business. Samuel Altemus stayed with the company until at least the mid 1860's. Henry was only 20 at the time but had served as an apprentice with his father for some years. Clearly Altemus was overshadowed initially by other more established bookbinders in the Philadelphia area. But gradually he made a solid name for himself as an innovative bookbinder. He was the first to use cutting machines for trimming the edges of books and the first to use a backing machine (The American Bookmaker 2, p. 194, 1886).

By the 1860’s Altemus & Co., now at 806 Market Street, was one of the largest binders in the country. It had more than 150 employees at that time. Despite the apparent success of the company, the civil war presented quite a crisis. It was the production of photographic albums that saved the day. In 1860 two Philadelphia photographers brought to Altemus imported European photographic albums with the question whether they could be made in Philadelphia. Soon Altemus was publishing these albums. (Publishers’ Weekly P.241 #761 August 28, 1886)

Altemus & Co. began manufacturing beautifully embossed gold gilt leather bound photographic albums. These albums were Altemus’ first effort at binding a book with its own imprint. Patented in 1863, Altemus’ photographic album was “the only hingeback album made”. They became a mainstay of its business. Ads proclaimed that they were “premium awarded at the Vienna Exposition, 1873”. Altemus stated it had all sizes and styles of binding. (sealskin, Morocco, Russia, silk plush). By 1889 Altemus was boasting about their photograph albums: “ The demand for our photograph albums during the past season was largely in excess of any previous year. Our capacity of production was taxed to its utmost.”

In the 1870’s Altemus & Company, now at 806 Market Street, was branching out. In addition to the photographic albums, it was publishing scrapbooks, autograph albums and blank-books. Also in the early 1870’s the first Altemus Bibles were produced with the Altemus & Co. imprint.

In the 1880s they were producing as many as 5000 books per day. Moving from their location at fourth and Cherry Streets in 1886 Altemus & Company set up shop at 507, 509, 511 and 513 Cherry Street.

In their earliest catalogues in the 1880s the motto “The Best is the Cheapest” was displayed prominently on the front page. Those early catalogues had a full page picture of the Bible Warehouse and illustrated and advertised numerous photo albums and Bibles. In keeping with its religious line of publications an open book on a scroll stated “And There Was Light” was prominent on the catalogue’s first page. The catalogue’s front page also proudly noted the availability of Family, Pulpit and Reference Bibles. Trying to distinguish its Bibles from the Bibles of other publishers, Altemus noted in a letter to the trade: “For some time past the Book Trade has felt and expressed the want of a line of Bibles divested of the many objectionable features in the way of flashy pictures and inappropriate engravings...... much to the disgust of the Bible-reading community... In offering this new line of Family and Pulpit Bibles, the Publisher desires to state that neither expense nor pains have been spared to make it the cheapest, the handsomest and the best ever offered to the American Book Trade.”

Of course, Altemus’ claims regarding their Bibles were somewhat hypocritical. In 1883 they hired Captain J. Parker Martin, formerly a managing partner of the Bible department of A.J. Holman. Holman was the major Philadelphia publisher of Bibles. Subsequent to the Martin hiring, the 1884 Altemus ‘ Bibles were a close copy of the Holman books. Not a coincidence I suspect. Martin died in 1886 but by then the dye was cast regarding the look and feel of the Altemus Bibles.

The Bibles certainly were the mainstay of early Henry Altemus’ publishing in this era. In 1886 for example, there were 16 pages of Bibles of various styles and prices advertised in their catalogue. Different styles and sizes were well advertised in catalogues until 1897. In fact, Altemus referred to itself as the Philadelphia Bible Warehouse. Apparently because of either diminished popularity and/or reduced print runs, after 1897 the reader was told to write for an illustrated catalogue of Bibles which were available as the Bibles were no longer advertised in the yearly Altemus general book catalogue. For more information, see: http://henryaltemus.com/bibles/bibles.htm

In the early years along with bibles and photographic albums, Altemus also published scrapbooks of various types. These scrapbooks were copyrighted in 1874. The scrapbooks as well as the photographic albums were initially published earlier than the bibles and had Altemus & Co. as their imprint whereas the bibles had Henry Altemus as their imprints.

“The Best is the Cheapest” motto is of interest but when the prices of the Bibles are reviewed, one wonders how accurate that motto was. Although “Cheap Pictorial Editions” and Cheap Editions for Domestic Reading are seen in the $2-$3 dollar range, many Bibles were priced in the $20-30 dollar range. In today’s dollars these would now cost hundreds.

As the Henry Altemus imprint was used for books from this era on, Altemus & Co. continued to publish blank books, ledgers, checks for banks, etc. In addition private printings of small quantities of books for local organizations were also published on the Altemus & Co. imprint. This continued until the demise of Henry Altemus Company in 1936.

In 1889 Altemus first produced non-bible books. The Dore illustrated books were elegant oversized beautifully designed books with illustrations by Gustave Dore. These books had extensive gold gilt and were exceedingly expensive. Altemus flyers stated for The Rime of the Ancient Mariner- “The superb bindings are the most attractive ever offered to an appreciative public at prices within the easy reach of all. ”This easy reach of all was $7.50 for the fine English Cloth book and $10.00 for the full Morocco book. For Tennyson’s Idylls of the King the Altemus ads stated “At the low prices which the work is offered it is hoped that it will will find the large sale that it so well deserves.” This book was listed at $12.50 and $15.00. This inexpensiveness might have been a bit of an exaggeration however. Based on the consumer price index, $15.00 in 1889 would bring a hefty $315 price in 2005. These stunning oversized books contained numerous full page illustrations (plates) by Gustave Dore’. Initially these books were not grouped together in series form but rather published as separate books with similar formats. In 1898 Altemus listed six of the books together as the Dore Masterpieces. The books were unchanged from before however. Of note is that originally Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress was listed with the other Dore books. In fact, it was included in advertising flyers with the other six books. See: http://henryaltemus.com/series/series78.htm

But when the “Dore Masterpieces” were listed as a series in 1898, Pilgrim’s Progress was listed separately. In 1892 Altemus published a German Edition of The Dore Bible Gallery. It was other than the German identical in every respect to the English language edition. This book was the only foreign language book published by Altemus. Even into the early 1890s Altemus still held itself out as the Philadelphia Bible Warehouse. Certainly most of the catalogues were dedicated to their bibles.

But in 1891 beside the Dore books, for the first time Altemus published nonreligious/inspirational fiction books. Paul and Virginia, Addresses by Drummond, Told After Supper by Jerome K. Jerome, and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress were all published in 1891. A reprint of A Child’s History of England along with The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe were published in 1892. Of note is that Paul and Virginia as well as these two 1892 books were beautifully bound in either fine English cloth or Persian Levant Morocco. Gilt, multicolored illustrations adorned the front cover. They were oversized and quite costly for the time. The prices ranged from $3.00-$5.00. Representative pictures can be seen in the picture section.

Altemus also published in 1890 the Jerome K. Jerome book Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow. This was to be the first book in the Idle Hour Series. This aborted series lasted precisely two books. Of significance is that the two Jerome books were published in paper covers as well as cloth. During the first year of the Vademecum Series (1894) one format was also published in paper covers. With these exceptions, Altemus produced no other books with paper covers. These paper covered books are perhaps the rarest of all Altemus books. Clearly because of their fragility, virtually none of them have survived to the present time.

In 1891 a four volume Shakespeare’s Complete Works was introduced as well. The set was published for several years until it was replaced by Altemus’ 39 volume set in 1899. In 1892 Altemus published the first of many very popular but yet relatively inexpensive reprint series, The Altemus Library. This series first appeared with a 16 book list.

Altemus continued to publish more reprint series with an ever increasing book list size. These series for the most part had wonderfully decorative covers as can be seen in the picture section. They included numerous books by Hawthorne, Poe, Emerson, Whittier, Ruskin etc. Multiple series had the same books in their list. The books in these reprint series were mainly marketed for their beautiful cover designs. The subject material of the books was almost an afterthought.

The first of the religious/moralistic books series, The Divinity Series, was published in 1895. In addition, 1895 was the first year that Altemus published a children’s juvenile series as the first six volumes of the Young People’s Library (http://henryaltemus.com/series/series202.htm) were introduced. At the turn of the century and the first few years that followed Altemus introduced a number of juvenile and fairy tale series including the Wee Books for Wee Folks Series. (http://henryaltemus.com/wee_books/index.htm) In the mid-1890s Altemus published books in what they called their “Renaissance Bindings”. These specially bound books were included in the Altemus Library, the Devotional Series and the Representative Poets Series. Priced at $4.00 they were more expensive than any of the other single volumes of similar size that Altemus was publishing at the time. There were five styles. Three were in calf with various gold gilt patterns. The other two were in full crushed levant and full turkey Morocco. An example can be seen pictured on the Devotional Series picture page.

Henry Altemus incorporated to Henry Altemus Company in 1900. It was at that time that Howard Eyre Altemus joined with his brother Henry Altemus, Jr. and his father Henry Altemus to form the new publishing House. Howard previously had established the Fireside Publishing Company in 1883. The latter company published Bibles as well as historical and political books. Initially it was located at 117 N. 4th Street. Later it relocated to 20 N. 7th Street. Fireside was absorbed by the Henry Altemus Company in 1900. By that time it was using Altemus’ Cherry Street address. Interesting enough, several of the Fireside books were subsequently published by Henry Altemus. Examples are Thomas Cooper’s American Politics and Battles for the Union by Captain Willard Glazier.

Henry Altemus, Sr. died in 1906. He was born in 1833. A graduate of the public schools, he spent his life with the company that bore his name. His obituary stated “a man of wide culture; he spoke both French and German fluently”. He was an extensive traveler and was one of the last foreigners to leave Paris before its investment by the German armies in 1870. His charities ..were many. He died after a short illness. His sons Henry, Jr., Howard E., Robert and Roland followed him into the family publishing business. (PW p. 1155 no.1813 Oct. 27, 1906)

Altemus continued to add more and more books and series to their publication list. Over 200 series were published during their 40+ year publishing history. More than 95% of their books were in series form. In 1913 they moved from Cherry Street to 1226 Vine Street and remained there until the end. Altemus & Co. from the early 1930s until 1936 was located at 33 and 35 S. Fourth Street. At that time they noted on their letterhead “Blank book makers, stationers, printers and lithographers”.

In 1909 the juvenile series, both for boys and girls, were introduced. These extremely popular books (see section) were published into the 1930s. In fact the entire Altemus line changed dramatically as the teens and 1920s wore on. Fewer religious, reprint and adult books were published. In fact by the early 1920s the catalogue motto had changed to “the right books for boys and girls”. Finally most of the series were fazed out in the early 1930s. In 1931 and 1932 Altemus produced two hardcover comic series. These were the two volume Bobby Thatcher Series and the four volume Felix the Cat Series. These were perhaps an effort to compete with other hardcover comic publishers like Cupples and Leon. The effort certainly failed as did Altemus both probably coincidental with the death of Howard Eyre Altemus in 1933. After Howard’s death Roland Altemus took over as president and treasurer. While under his control Altemus & Co. continued to produce stationary, blank books, and did printing for others. No new books were published. When he died in 1936, Henry Altemus ended their business.



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Last Revision September 27, 2009