One day in 1877, John B. Alden, the thirty-year-old "boy publisher" from Chicago, looked up from his desk at the New York office of the American Book Exchange and declared, "I can make new books cheaper than anyone can steal old ones". Thus began a Literary Revolution.
|Ad for Alden's youth magazine What Next? from 1874|
John Berry Alden was born on March 2, 1847 in a log cabin in Henry County, Iowa. At the end of the Civil War he went to Chicago and found a job as a clerk, and later manager, of a bookstore. He got into the publishing side of the business by producing youth magazines with titles like "What Next?" and "Bright Side". Unable to recover from losses sustained in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, he came to New York where he worked for a time as the business manager for the periodical "Hearth and Home".
|"Revolutionary" publisher John B. Alden|
In 1875 Alden started a new business - the American Book Exchange. Customers brought him their old books and for a small fee, perhaps 10 cents, exchanged them for new ones. He was two years into that venture when he got the idea to go back into publishing in a big way. His idea was to produce books on such a massive scale - in the millions - that the production costs per book would be minuscule, and the books could be sold cheaply. He called it The Literary Revolution, and within two years he was indeed turning out millions of books. And the public was buying.
|This ad ran in hundreds of newspapers in 1880|
Needless to say traditional publishers were not pleased. Alden's books were only "cheap" in the sense that they were inexpensive. The books themselves, including mostly classic works of literature and many multi-volume histories and encyclopedias, were of basically the same quality as was being produced by the old publishing houses. Alden kept prices low through volume of sales, and by cutting out the middleman as much as possible and selling directly to consumers through newspaper ads and catalogs.
|John B. Alden advertising postcard|
He was such a disruptive force in the publishing world - selling well known and loved titles for sometimes one tenth the traditional price - that publishers began to strike back, refusing to honor advertising contracts for the "Revolution". Undeterred, Alden offered 10,000 shares of his company at $10 per share - which may have been a mistake. His public company invited greater scrutiny and rival publishers were eager to point out that there was no way that Alden was actually making a profit - especially after the low paper prices of 1879 began to spike upwards in 1880.
|One of the pages from Alden's 1889 literature magazine and catalog|
The initial business went bankrupt, but by 1883 Alden was back with a new enterprise - The Useful Knowledge Publishing Company - and again selling books at cut-rate prices. This company was on surer footing, and remained in business for over 20 years, allowing Alden to retire with his wife and some of his six children to a poultry farm on Amwell Road near Neshanic, New Jersey.
|One of the many hundreds of different volumes published by Alden|
The farm was one of the larger ones in Somerset County; Alden and his son C. Tracy had great success with eggs and chickens. And the story would end there if not for an old bank account payable to the "Receiver of the American Book Exchange" that had gone unnoticed for thirty years and turned up in 1915 - a remnant of that initial bankruptcy. This "tidy sum" allowed Alden to publish one final book - Peace and Prosperity via Justice and Practical Sense. Ostensibly written as a book-length justification for Alden's scheme to unlock the wealth of the United States by issuing a massive amount of debt from the Postal Savings Bank - a scheme which had at least one backer in the US Senate - it instead reads as a progressive Utopian dream (or nightmare), with Neshanic used as the prime example for Alden's vision.
|Title page of Alden's Peace and Prosperity, second edition, 1919|
The 240 page treatise has much to say about proposed national, regional, and local "mutual aid associations", i.e. socialist collectives - and he has great plans for Neshanic! The Neshanic Mutual Aid Association will take ownership of the mill, for example, and also build a dam to create an enormous Neshanic Lake at the foot of the Sourland Mountain. Roads will be built all through the mountain to provide access to "Bluff Park" above the lake. Forestry management will unlock the wealth of the timber - all for the good of the Association!
There are pages and pages of Alden's vision of an efficient community where, as he puts it, it isn't "every fellow for himself", but instead all working together against the real evil - the industrialists like Rockefeller.
Unfortunately, Alden turns out to be a progressive in the mold of Margaret Sanger and Woodrow Wilson. Here are Alden's own words - I have censored the most objectionable:
And one beauty of the scheme is that the character of the increased population can be "selected" according to the wishes of the people now here. We do not need to employ "da-os" or "ni--ers", or sell or lease to "malefactors of great wealth" except as we choose to do - we can offer inducements to bring the desirable population.
Alden died at his home in Neshanic on December 4, 1924. His son continued the farm very successfully for another couple of decades. Neshanic Bluff was never built.