The building at 101 Tremont began its life as the Boston Museum, which hosted works of fine art, a collection of wax figures, a theater, and a zoo. In the mid-1800s, the Museum Building, as it was then called, was taken over by Gleason’s Publishing Hall, which became the first company in the country to integrate all aspects of the publishing process under one roof. Frederick Gleason, a German immigrant, had worked in Boston for some years as a bookbinder before publishing Joseph Holt Ingraham’s 1842 novel Edward Austin; or, The Hunting Flask: A Tale Of The Forest And Town. Over the following years, Gleason honed what would eventually become the “dime novel”—short, inexpensive books with considerable dramatic action and titles such as Fanny Campbell, the Female Pirate Captain and The Gipsey; or, The robbers of Naples: a story of love and pride (both written by Maturin Murray Ballou). Between 1837 and 1857, Gleason was the most successful publisher in the United States, with 180 titles (more than double the number produced by Harper & Brothers, which would eventually become the publishing conglomerate HarperCollins, and further still ahead of the then-nascent houses of Scribner and Putnam).
In 1846, Gleason began the weekly “story” paper The Flag of Our Union. The Flag gained quick popularity for its original serialized literature, including works by Louisa May Alcott and Edgar Allen Poe, along with those of a stable of writers who largely wrote under pseudonyms; Ingraham was better known as F. Clinton Barrington, and Ballou, the paper’s editor, went by Lieutenant Murray. By the mid-1850s, circulation had reached 100,000.
In 1851, Gleason started simultaneously producing Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing Room Companion, largely known today for its woodcuts, many of which show scenes of daily life in the 1850s. Gleason’s usually ran about sixteen pages, with at least as many original images and very few advertisements. Its stated objective was “to present, in the most elegant and available form, a weekly literary mélange of notable events of the day…original tales, sketches and poems, by the Best American authors, and the cream of the domestic and foreign news; the whole well spiced with wit and humor.”
Gleason had sold both The Flag and Gleason’s to Ballou by 1855, the latter of which became Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion. Though Gleason started several other publications, none saw the success of his early ventures.
Certain books were “banned in Boston” at least as far back as 1651, when one William Pynchon wrote a book criticizing Puritanism.