Baseball Hall of Famer “Wee” Willie Keeler once advised hitters to “Keep your eye clear and hit ‘em where they ain’t.” It’s a good strategy for the game, and not a bad one for competition in business, either. The Phinney family of Cooperstown would likely agree, when it came to its book publishing business in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The Phinneys were innovators, bringing the written word to places others had not, or perhaps hadn’t yet thought about. Elihu Phinney was a publisher in Canaan, Columbia County, in the early 1790s. Phinney was invited to Cooperstown by Judge William Cooper, the wealthy land developer who had established the village. Phinney accepted, and in addition to his law practice, opened a publishing business, starting Otsego County’s first newspaper, The Otsego Herald, in 1795. The area was starting to grow, and its residents were probably happy to be able to read about what was going on in the world outside the village.
In the first edition, Phinney wrote that he, “in the winter of 1793, penetrated a wilderness, and broke a track, through a deep snow, with six teams, in the ‘depth’ of winter, and was received with a cordiality, bordering on homage.”
Phinney’s sons, Henry and Elihu became involved in the publishing business and took it over upon their father’s death in 1813.
Citing two college theses within the resources of the New York State Historical Association Research Library in Cooperstown, one finds that Henry and Elihu were very enterprising brothers.
In “The Phinneys of Cooperstown,” Kathryn Klim Sturrock writes that, at one time, the two brothers employed 40 people, used 3,000 reams of paper a year and kept five presses in almost constant use. Their chief publications were Bibles, schoolbooks, children’s books and a favorite of many, the annual Phinney’s “Calendar and Western Almanack.”
In “A History of Printing in Cooperstown,” Stephen R. Wiist explains that the Phinneys greatly expanded their production of books in 1820 with the introduction of the process of stereotyping. This was done by producing a solid plate of type-metal, saving a printer’s recompositing expense and labor.
By 1825 the Phinneys’ business had prospered to a point that they were able to open a branch office in Utica.
“The success enjoyed by the Phinneys,” Wiist wrote, “was due in large measure to innovative and, indeed, for their time and place, unique marketing techniques. It had long been a standard practice for those engaged in the business of publishing newspapers to hire post riders to seek out new customers and to act as agents in the distribution of their wares.
“One was the construction of large wagons equipped with movable tops and counters. These ‘portable’ bookstores stocked with ‘hundreds of varieties of books’ transversed the upstate area of New York from Albany in the east and Buffalo in the west, seeking out customers in many remote areas where books were difficult to obtain. Another method of distribution, employed after 1825, was the fitting out of a ‘floating’ bookstore which carried a ‘variety beyond that found in ordinary village bookstores, anchoring in winter at one of the largest towns on the Erie Canal.’”
The Phinneys also established a chain of regional bookstores, placed in strategic locations such as Utica, Buffalo and Detroit.
The moving and floating bookstore operations lasted awhile, but times changed, as villages began establishing their own public libraries in the 1830s. Peterborough, N.H., claims to be the first publicly funded library in the U.S. in 1833. The Buffalo and Utica free libraries began in 1836 and 1838, respectively.
The Phinneys conducted their publishing business in Cooperstown until 1849, when a fire destroyed their operations. It was then moved to Buffalo.
In 1854, Henry Phinney moved to New York to form Ivison & Phinney. The name Phinney remained on almanacs for several more years, despite the succession of the Phinney & Co. operation in Buffalo by another company.
According to The Oneonta Herald of Oct. 20, 1887, “The publication of the Phinney almanac is to be discontinued. There was a time when this almanac was about the only ‘reading matter’ to be found in many households in this and adjoining counties.”
On Monday: A bit of our local life and times in January 1978.
City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at email@example.com. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/marksimonson.