150 Notable Books: The First Books of Cornell University Press

Every press has to start somewhere and produce its very first book. Tracking this book down for Cornell University Press, however, is an impossible task. In late 1869, America’s first university press was mainly a printing house. We produced lecture notes for professors, university documents, and student newspapers on a large steam-driven Hoe printing press. Most of these items were short, ephemeral, and any records vanished long ago. We do not know the name of the first item to roll off the press.

The publication chosen to represent the first book by Cornell University Press, and to be the first entry on our list of 150 notable books, is the 1869-70 University Register. This annual publication contained much of the information you would find on a modern university website. It was a directory of staff and students, a listing of fields of study and graduation requirements, and a description of the university’s founding, mission, and many fine amenities.

CUP first

The director of the press, Willard Fiske, wrote a letter to President A. D. White in August 1869 about his work on the register. He described the contents, gave an estimate for completion of proof pages, and explained his plans for raising money to pay for the publication by including a page of advertising—just as most of the British university presses were doing. Despite all the trappings of modern technology that surround publishing today, these basic elements have remained the same: develop the best possible book, produce it on deadline, and figure out how to pay for it!

In contrast to the unknown first publication from CUP, Comstock Publishing was formed in 1892 for the specific purpose of publishing a particular book. As the twenty-fifth anniversary of the inauguration of the university approached, two professors, John Henry Comstock and Simon Henry Gage, felt this would be a good opportunity to honor their former professor and mentor, Burt Green Wilder. Wilder, a Harvard medical school graduate and former Civil War surgeon, had been a professor of neurology and vertebrate zoology at Cornell since its earliest days.

Comstock and Gage contacted several of Wilder’s former students and asked them to contribute to a Festschrift, a contributed volume of essays meant to honor a respected academic—and the first such book published in the United States. The result was the Wilder Quarter-Century Book, a book of nearly 500 pages, with many plates and engravings. Contributors, in addition to Comstock and Gage, included Anna Botsford Comstock (naturalist and first woman professor at Cornell), David Starr Jordan (first president of Stanford University), Leland Ossian Howard (USDA entomologist), Theobald Smith (pioneering bacteriologist), John Caspar Branner (geologist and discoverer of bauxite), and William Russell Dudley (head of the botany department at Stanford).

These two first publications bookend (if I may) the educational journey at Cornell. The first CUP book introduced prospective students to the university and its many opportunities. And the first Comstock book showcased the many achievements of former Cornell students, out in the world, discovering and disseminating knowledge.

page from Comstock first

Karen Laun is the self-proclaimed press historian and an enthusiast of all things old and dusty. In her spare time she is a Senior Production Editor and also works in the ultramodern world of e-books as Digital Publishing Editor.

150 Notable Books: The First Books of Cornell University Press