Spine of the elaborate American binding.
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Spine of the elaborate American binding.

A typical page opening; this example with three electrotyped images.
Creative Commons LicenseJeremy Norman Collection of Images - Creative Commons

A typical page opening; this example with three electrotyped images.

The single leaf broadside prospectus for Harper's Illuminated and New Pictorial Bible. When the prospectus was published the publishers did not know the final number of parts that it would re
Creative Commons LicenseJeremy Norman Collection of Images - Creative Commons

The single leaf broadside prospectus for Harper's Illuminated and New Pictorial Bible. When the prospectus was published the publishers did not know the final number of parts that it would require, estimating the number only at "about 50 numbers."

Harpers Illuminated New Pictorial Bible parts upper wrappers
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Samples of the two color variants in the upper covers of the complete set of 54 parts comprising the complete Harper's Illuminated and New Pictorial Bible.

Harpers Bible rear wrapper blue
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Rear wrapper on the earlier parts printed in blue and red ink. When this early part was published Harpers did not know the final number of parts that would be required to complete the work, estimating them only at "about 50 numbers at 25 cents each." On this wrapper Harpers repeated their assertion made in their prospectus that "The great superiority of early proof impressions,from the Engravings, will ensure to those who take the work in Numbers the possession of in THE HIGHEST STATE OF PERFECTION."

Harpers Bible rear wrapper black
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Rear wrapper on later parts printed in black ink with the expected testimonials, etc.

Detail map of Manhattan, New York, New York, United States Overview map of Manhattan, New York, New York, United States

A: Manhattan, New York, New York, United States

Joseph Alexander Adams Illustrates Harper's Illuminated Bible, the Finest Book Yet Published in the United States

1843 to 1846
One of the more elaborate American bindings of the period done for this large volume.
Creative Commons LicenseJeremy Norman Collection of Images - Creative Commons

One of the more elaborate American bindings of the period done for this large volume.

Between 1843 and 1846 Harper & Brothers in New York issued in 54 fascicules or parts Harper's Illuminated and New Pictorial Bible, considered the finest book produced in the United States to this date. An extraordinary feature of this exceptional bible were the 1600 historical llustrations engraved by Joseph Alexander Adams and reproduced by the innovative process of electrotype. This version of the King James Bible was also ground breaking for its detailed center-column cross-references showing the many places where the Apocrypha is quoted or referenced in the Old and the New Testaments. The complete work when bound weighed over 13 pounds, and was printed on high quality paper.

It is 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. Regarding the Harper 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 no 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 previous 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" (Gutjahr, An American Bible: A History of the Good Book in the United States 1777-1880 [1999] 70-71).

At the end of 2018 I was very surprised to add to my collection a complete set of all 54 original parts of Harper's Illuminated and New Pictorial Bible. Very few complete sets of parts of this work have survived as, considering how awkward it is to use the parts, nearly all copies would have been bound upon completion. Besides this factor, 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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