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Harper’s Illuminated Bible

Harpers Illuminated

Between 1843 and 1846 Harper & Brothers in New York issued in fifty four fascicules or parts Harper’s Illuminated and New Pictorial Bible, considered the finest book produced in the United States. An extraordinary feature of this bible were the 1600 historical illustrations engraved by Joseph Alexander Adams and reproduced by the process of electrotype. The complete work when bound weighed over 13 pounds, and was printed on high quality paper.

It’s possible that the commercial inspiration for Harper’s Illuminated and New Pictorial Bible came from the success of Charles Knight’s The Pictorial Bible published from 1836 to 1838, and later editions. Whether or not that was the case, the commercial success of Harper’s Bible greatly exceeded Charles Knight’s publication.

The idea to produce such a bible did not originally come from one of the four Harper brothers. Even though their firm was fast becoming the largest publisher in the United States, the Harpers had not printed a bible for almost twenty years when Joseph Alexander Adams, a local printer and engraver, came to them with a proposal to produce the grandest bible the United States had ever seen. What promised to make Adams’s edition so special was more than sixteen hundred illustrations. No American-made bible had ever contained more than one hundred pictures. Aside from the spectacular number of engravings, Adams wanted to distinguish his volume by the fact that the pictures would predominantly be on the same pages as the text, rather than on separate sheets bound within the text, as was the more common publishing practice.

Adams promised to accomplish this wonder through a new printing process called electrotyping: a procedure that involved coating stereotype, woodblock, or intaglio plates with a thin layer of copper, thereby strengthening them for use in high-speed, high-pressure presses. Electrotyping allowed for large print runs of extremely fine quality text and pictures. The Harpers’ Illuminated Bible was the first volume printed in the United States with this technology.

Rather than releasing the book all at once, Harper and Brothers decided to print the edition in fifty-four parts ranging from twenty-five to sixty-pages, at twenty-five cents each. The decided on an initial press run of 50,000 copies per installment. Subscribers could purchase the installments as they appeared and then have them bound upon the edition’s completion in 1846. To make these installments more enticing, Harper and Brothers decided to print some pages in an expensive two-color format. Finally, in 1844 Harper and Brothers ordered a new set of presses specially designed to facilitate the electrotyping printing process.

The Illuminated Bible was an immediate success. The initial press run quickly sold out, and Harper and Brothers decided to run 25,000 copies of the entire volume in 1846. Over the next two decades, sales would remain strong enough for the firm to issue two more printings in 1859 and 1866.

Very few complete sets of this work have survived considering how awkward it is to use the parts. And most probably, any remaining issues of the parts that Harpers’ would have kept would have been destroyed in the fire that burned down Harpers’ warehouse after the Bible was published.

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