The first owner of what is now the Old Corner Bookstore was religious dissident Anne Hutchinson, who left her wooden house on the site to found the Rhode Island settlement of Portsmouth. After the building burned down in 1711, it was converted to an apothecary, making it the oldest commercial space in Boston. In 1829, however, a series of bookstores and publishing houses occupied the old brick building. The most famous of these was Ticknor & Fields, who printed some of the best-known works of the Golden Age of American Literature.
William Davis Ticknor was born to farmers in Lebanon, New Hampshire. At twenty-two years old, he began his work as a publisher, going into business with John Allen to create the firm Allen and Ticknor. They took over the Old Corner Bookstore from the “Publishers, Booksellers and Stationers,” Carter, Hendee & Co. Carter and Hendee had hired teenaged James (“Jamie”) Thomas Fields as an apprentice, who joined Allen and Ticknor with their occupation of the shop. The publishing company was known as William D. Ticknor and Company, then Ticknor, Reed, and Fields. In 1854, following the retirement of Reed, the famous Ticknor & Fields was born.
In addition to the bookstore and publishing house, the Old Corner Bookstore also held meeting rooms upstairs, which became the “hub,” as author George William Curtis called it, of the Boston literary scene. Authors published by Ticknor & Fields, or who frequented the store, included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry David Thoreau, and Mark Twain. When Ticknor & Fields became the first publisher to pay international authors, they also acquired Charles Dickens and Alfred Tennyson.
Ticknor died of pneumonia in the company of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who wrote to Fields just before Ticknor’s death that he “seemed uncomfortable, but not to an alarming degree.” When Hawthorne himself died a month later, Fields served as a pallbearer at his funeral, in the company of Bronson Alcott, Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Longfellow. Following Ticknor’s death, the company left the Old Corner Bookstore building (for larger quarters on Tremont Street)—which was sold to publishing company E. P. Dutton—becoming Fields, Osgood, & Co. After Fields’ retirement, James R. Osgood published the work of authors such as Henry James and feminist writer Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward. In 1878, the company was bought Henry Oscar Houghton, ultimately becoming a part of what was then Houghton, Mifflin, and Co. and is today known simply as Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Certain books were “banned in Boston” at least as far back as 1651, when one William Pynchon wrote a book criticizing Puritanism.