Inside the Milberg Gallery: In the Company of Good Books - Publishing and Packaging

The following is part of a series of inside looks at the current exhibition in Princeton University Library’s Ellen and Leonard Milberg Gallery in Firestone Library - “In the Company of Good Books: Shakespeare to Morrison.” 

Curated by Jennifer Garcon, Librarian for Modern and Contemporary Special Collections, Gabriel Swift, Librarian for American Collections, and Eric White, Scheide Librarian & Assistant University Librarian for Special Collections, Rare Books & Manuscripts, the exhibition celebrates the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s “First Folio” and showcases Princeton’s diverse collection of English literature and many of the writers and readers who brought life to English literature around the world.

The prevailing format of the early nineteenth-century English novel was the “three-decker”: A trio of handy octavo volumes, generally issued simultaneously, at a price that was affordable (but not cheap) for well-to-do readers. Exemplified by “Sense and Sensibility” (1811), which Jane Austen published anonymously and at her own financial risk, this format not only shaped the overall narrative and content of each volume, but made it easy for distinct volumes to be distributed among multiple readers within families and through lending libraries.

Another successful publishing strategy was the serial publication of novels in weekly or monthly installments. This approach was introduced with Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe” (1719-20) and attained renewed popularity in 1836 with the astounding success of Charles Dickens’ “Pickwick Papers.” Just as established newspapers could promote untested novels, new works by successful authors could sell newspapers. For readers, the serialization of portions of novels in paper wrappers reduced the cost of reading and offered the option of binding up the novel once all the portions had been published. Two immensely successful serialized novels are exhibited here in their original parts: “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852), and “Middlemarch” by George Eliot (1871-72).

Title page of Harriet Beecher Stowe's “Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly.”

Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896). “Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly.” 2 vols. Engravings by Hammatt Billings. Boston: John P. Jewett & Co., 1852. The Howard T. Behrman Collection.

First appearing weekly in The National Era from June 1851 to April 1852, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” became the most talked-about book of the century and the most impactful work of all American literature. Stowe’s sympathetic yet stereotype-laden protest novel forced previously disengaged readers to see slavery’s cruel injustice, galvanized the Abolitionist movement, and framed the moral crisis that precipitated the Civil War. This first edition bears the publisher’s “gift binding.”

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The exhibition is open through December 10, 2023 at the Milberg Gallery in Firestone Library. Please visit the website to view the gallery’s opening hours and for information about public tours, related programming, and how to visit.

Discover more through the companion digital exhibition.

Published November 7, 2023.

Media Contact: Stephanie Oster, Library Publicity Manager