Little, Brown & Company

How is current day (2009) French publisher, Hachette Livre, connected with a post-American Revolution bookstore founded in Boston in 1784 by a man named Ebenezer Battelle?

That venerable old Boston publisher, Little, Brown & Company, is the link between the two. They (Charles Little and James Brown) got their start with Carter, Hilliard & Co. (directly or indirectly, as indicated further down), eventual successors to Battelle’s bookstore, and went into business for themselves in 1837. Today, they are one of many publishers comprising French publishing giant Hachette Livre.

Here's a billhead for Little, Brown & Company, dated 1892, which I recently acquired. What got my attention on this was the business description underneath the company name: Law Booksellers, Publishers & Importers. Publishers, what they're known for today and for the last half century and more, gets second billing. But the modifier Law is what grabbed my attention.

I was ignorant of the fact that this publisher got its start as a law book specialist (as was I ignorant of the fact that the company is now French-owned). Readers and bookstore browsers over the last fifty-plus years got used to seeing Little, Brown and Company on the spines and title pages of books by authors such as Norman Mailer, J. D. Salinger, Gore Vidal, Evelyn Waugh, P. G. Wodehouse, and Herman Wouk. More recently, it's been Stephenie Meyer, whose Twilight series about Vampires has become the publisher's all-time bestseller. But they didn't venture into fiction and general publishing until the 1890s, about the time of this billhead.

The company’s genealogy has its origins in a Boston bookseller named Ebenezer Battelle, who in partnership with printer/publisher Isaiah Thomas, started one of the earliest bookstores in the newly independent United States. Thomas formed partnerships with many booksellers during the 1780s to build a distribution network for his publishing business.

But Thomas is also known as the "father of ephemera," and creator and benefactor of the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts, which was formed in 1812. In the early 1800s, he set about collecting and preserving the books and papers and historical artifacts of the young country. This collection, some 8,000 pieces in all, was donated to the fledgling society. Photo from The Book in America, by Richard W. Clement (Fulcrum Publishing, 1996).

From the Ephemera Society of America: "America’s first great ephemerist was Isaiah Thomas (1749-1831), founder of the American Antiquarian Society and a printer who recognized the significance of printed ephemera as part of the evidential record."

Battelle and Thomas appear to have parted company prior to 1788, as that was the year that Battelle joined the Ohio Company of Associates (a land company) and headed to the Old Northwest for a new life there.

A series of owners succeeded Battelle and Thomas in their bookstore, including the firm of Carter, Hilliard, and Co., which eventually hired Charles C. Little to run things. The bookstore's name changed again, this time to include Little: Hilliard, Gray, Little & Wilkins. But the company, or part of the company, was sold in 1830, and the original proprietors removed to another location where they resumed business and prospered. This is where the law book specialty seems to originate along with imported works.

This company history gets about as confusing as any family history that genealogists wade into this deep. To wit, one James Brown, who worked for Hilliard & Brown (another Hilliard ?) joined up with Little (of the original Hilliard firm?) in 1837 and together they became the new proprietors of wherever it was that Little had been working. Clear as mud? Well, the Charles C. Little & James Brown Company was born, but by 1847, Augustus Flagg had joined the company and they changed the name to Little, Brown and Company. Finally! A name they could stick with. And the name has remained unchanged ever since.

You might have noticed the name Flagg on the billhead as one of the four officers in the company. That is actually the son of Augustus Flagg. And the Brown listed is the son of James Brown. So the family blood did continue for some time.

I found these images of Little and Brown in an old Publisher's Weekly article, dated June 11, 1898, which also provided some clarity in the bloodlines of this company.

Little, Brown and Company continued with their law book specialty, but published and sold other nonfiction titles as well. Their most successful venture was John Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, first published in 1859 and revised and expanded nine times during Bartlett's life. Pictured to the left is another recent acquisition--The Ninth Edition of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. Interesting (spooky?) how these things tie together in my acquisitions sometimes.

Bartlett was actually a partner in Little, Brown and Company, having joined the firm in 1859, the year his Familiar Quotations was published. That book became the leading seller for the firm. Fast forward to the 21st century and familiar quotations give way to vampires (Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series mentioned earlier). Tastes do change, but fortunately the name of the publisher has managed to remain consistent for more than 150 years now. Despite presently being owned by a company in France.


  1. My father was the editor and chief of the law book department (vice president as well) until 1968?69? when Time Inc. bought the firm out. Dad was asked to leave within 6 months, after 20 plus years of building the law department. His name was Rodney Taylor Robertson, 10 Round Hill Road, Lexington, Massachusetts. Harvard College, Capt Yankee Division WWII and Harvard Law. (1917-1996)
    Time Inc offered a stock conversion of 3 to 1, and a health insurance policy for life - no pention, no gold watch, just a see you later. Little Brown was one of the last pirvately held publishing houses in the US to cave into corporate take over.
    I was happy to find this posting and will share it with Rod's grandchildren
    Tamzon Robertson Green, Boothbay, Maine

  2. Thank you for your comment and the additional history of the company, as experienced within your own family history. Hopefully, your father enjoyed a long life and the stock conversion, post-Little, Brown & Co., and didn't need the health insurance. It's hard to understand how a company can just dump a wealth of experience, dedication, and talent like that, especially in such an unceremonious manner.

  3. can i get a website for the company or a company employee listing . ive lost a dear old friend and saw her picture as an editor there. any help would be great!

  4. Try this site: It might be a good place to start. As for an employee listing, I can't help you there. I have no affiliation with the company. Good luck.


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