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  • Janet Steins

The Printers of The North American Indian

Updated: Jul 20, 2020

Frontispiece to the book, Stephen Daye and His Successors (1921)
Frontispiece to the book, Stephen Daye and His Successors (1921)

As part of our efforts to compile an accurate and complete census of The North American Indian, we’ve been looking at every aspect of the publication. Edward Curtis originally intended to produce a limited edition of 500 sets of the books, though evidence strongly indicates that he was not able to do so.Several authors have published their conclusions that the number of sets rests somewhere in the 200s, but our preliminary census findings indicate that these numbers may be too low.

As an example of these challenges, we have determined that there are many sets with numbers far higher than the 200’s (we have identified a set numbered 474), and there seem to be significant gaps in the numbering as well¹. In addition, there are at least 24 known sets that are not numbered at all, and there is also some duplication in numbering. See our census database for more details about all known sets.

To begin to solve some of these puzzles, we’ve searched in numerous manuscript collections for a definitive answer to the question of how many sets were printed. We know that Curtis engaged two different companies to print all of the text pages for the books: University Press in Cambridge, Mass. (not to be confused with Cambridge University Press, based in Cambridge, England), and, later, Plimpton Press in Norwood, Mass. Unfortunately, these efforts have not born results.

The printers and publication dates of the text volumes of The North American Indian can be summarized as follows:

Recent research on Curtis and The North American Indian publishing project suggests that by the time Curtis completed the manuscripts of volumes one and two and delivered them to University Press in 1907, there were scarcely enough subscribers committed to the project to pay the printer’s bills. Although Curtis received financial support from J. P. Morgan for his fieldwork, Morgan stipulated that the cost of publishing the books would have to be paid entirely from subscriptions. This obligation caused Curtis numerous financial difficulties that were an ongoing hindrance to the project throughout its life.

University Press had a storied history in Cambridge, Massachusetts, from as early as the 1870s and possibly all the way back to the colonial era.² It printed catalogs and official publications for the many colleges in the area, for Mary Baker Eddy’s Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston, and for the publisher The Houghton Mifflin Company, also in Boston, among many other customers. But in the early 20th-century, University Press’s printing plant was squeezed out of Cambridge. Local transit service, known as the Red Line today, had reached Harvard Square in 1912. Pressures on such manufacturing industries in the increasingly gentrifying Harvard Square neighborhood of the city, barely a quarter-mile from Harvard Yard, were growing, and as a consequence, the company closed the plant in the mid-1910s. After volumes four and five came off those presses in 1909, Curtis had to find a new printer for The North American Indian.

The drawing above shows University Press’s final printing plant, dating from about 1895, on the banks of the Charles River. The building was still standing in 1916, according to this Cambridge street map. It is the medium-sized structure located on the lower right.

Cambidge street map showing the location of University Press.
Cambidge street map showing the location of University Press.

The Houghton Library at Harvard University holds some records from University Press,³ including several leather-bound ledgers with detailed information about titles of books printed, names of customers, and numbers of copies produced. Unfortunately, these records only extend through the end of the 19th century. If other business records of the company dating from the first decade of the twentieth century exist, we hope to locate them.

In 1910, the printing of the remaining text volumes of The North American Indian was moved to Plimpton Press. The company was first established in Boston in 1892 and opened its Norwood, Massachusetts, plant in 1897. Norwood, located 15 miles southwest of Boston, already had a long industrial history, and Plimpton Press was a rapidly expanding business that fit in with the character of the town. The company continued to expand, and by 1920, Plimpton Press could produce 50,000 books every day. It was actively printing books for a wide range of customers up through the 1950s. The company changed owners in the 1960s, and the plant was closed in 1973. This postcard image (with a company’s name misspelled) dates from the early 20th century.

Postcard showing the Plimpton Press in the early 20th century.
Postcard showing the Plimpton Press in the early 20th century.

We’ve been able to view a small collection of documents and ephemeral material from Plimpton Press which is now owned by the Norwood Historical Society, but as far as we know, no business records exist that might indicate how many copies of The North American Indian volumes six through 20 were printed there between 1911 and 1930. If there are business records of Plimpton Press dating from these decades of the twentieth century exist, we hope to locate them. For now, we thought you’d enjoy this look at where the printed pages of The North American Indian came into being.



  1. “It is not known how many of the 500 numbered sets originally planned were actually printed. We do know, however, that only 272 copies were sold, ..….due to insufficient demand.” Adam, Hans Christian. “Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indians.” Introduction to Edward S. Curtis, The North American Indian: The Complete Portfolios. Köln: Taschen, 1997. “The North American Indian, Inc., after having printed only 272-plus sets but selling just over 200…” Hausman, Gerald and Bob Kapoun, eds. The Image Taker: The Selected Stories and Photographs of Edward S. Curtis. Bloomington IN: World Wisdom, 2009.

  2. Gilman, Arthur, editor. The Cambridge of 1896: A Picture of the City and its Industries Fifty Years After its Incorporation. Cambridge, Mass.: Riverside Press, 1896; Stephen Daye and his successors: the establishment of a printing plant in what was formerly British North America and the development of the art of printing at the University Press, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1639-1921. Cambridge, Mass.: University Press, John Wilson & Son, 1921.

  3. Houghton Library pf (horz) Typ 970U.45.860; Houghton Library Offsite Storage *2002M-27

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