The Birth of The Ryerson Press Imprint

by Janet B. Friskney, Frost Centre for Canadian Studies & Indigenous Studies, Trent University
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Colophon of The Ryerson Press in Poems for people / by Dorothy Livesay

The Ryerson Press, one of Canada’s most important book publishers during the twentieth century, was the general trade publishing arm of a much larger Toronto-based printing, bookselling, and publishing operation known in its entirety as the Methodist Book and Publishing House (MBPH). After the church union of 1925, which brought together the Methodist, Presbyterian, and Congregational Churches into the United Church of Canada, the overall operation was known as the United Church Publishing House. From 1919 to 1970, numerous educational, historical, and literary titles appeared under the Ryerson Press trade imprint, authored by such prominent Canadians as A.R.M. Lower, Earle Birney, A.M. Klein, and Alice Munro.

CP000017.jpgThe adoption of “The Ryerson Press” as the trade book imprint of the MBPH on 1 July 1919 marked a significant transition for the Toronto company. Prior to 1919, the MBPH’s primary concern in terms of original publishing had been denominational in focus, with an emphasis on periodical rather than book production. The Reverend Samuel W. Fallis (1866-1932), who had become book steward (general manager) of the MBPH in June of that year, broke with tradition when he chose a distinctive imprint for the MBPH’s general trade books. Since the early nineteenth century, it had been the house’s practice to use the name of the overseeing book steward as the imprint on books produced for trade sale. Fallis’s immediate predecessor, the Reverend William Briggs (1836-1922), had held the position of book steward for forty years, during which time he expanded the entire business considerably and imprinted the name “William Briggs” on the consciousness of two generations of Canadian booksellers and readers.
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The Ryerson Press represented a savvy choice of trade imprint, one that resonated with both the Methodist community and the larger Ontario public. The Reverend Egerton Ryerson (1803-82) had been the founding editor of the Christian Guardian, the religious weekly newspaper established in 1829 out of which the rest of the MBPH eventually grew. Ryerson had subsequently held the post of superintendent of education in Canada West (later, Ontario) from 1844 to 1876, a position which allowed him to shape the province’s fledgling public school system and which marked him as a significant figure in provincial history. During the course of his long life, CP00403-002.jpgRyerson had also distinguished himself as a writer, producing articles, pamphlets, and books that reflected his wide-ranging interests in religion, politics, education, and history. For these reasons, Ryerson’s name presented itself to Fallis and the church book committee to whom he reported as an appropriate choice for the house’s new trade book imprint. Indeed, it was an inspired one that foreshadowed the rapid expansion of the company’s original book publishing activities in the areas of school texts and Canadian literature and history.

In self-consciously adopting such a distinctive trade imprint, Fallis exhibited more interest in the MBPH’s trade book arm from the outset of his tenure than CP01134.jpgany of the book stewards who had preceded him. He further demonstrated this commitment in 1920 when he hired the Reverend Lorne Pierce (1890-1961) to assume a direct editorial role in relation to original Canadian book publishing and asked him, among other things, to develop “a live publishing programme,” as noted in a document titled “A Brief Survey of the Editorial and Educational Departments of the Publishing House” in the United Church of Canada Archives. By placing an ordained minister in this position, Fallis effectively elevated the status of original book publishing within the larger entity of the MBPH and the church as a whole. While Briggs had become well known for issuing original Canadian titles in the middle years of his stewardship, day-to-day responsibility for such books had primarily been designated to lay employees. Indeed, during the last half dozen years of his tenure, Briggs’s reputation as a publisher of original Canadian titles had waned, in great part because key lay personnel who had advocated the activity, such as S.B. Gundy (1870-1936), E.S. Caswell (1861-1938), and F. Sidney Ewens (1872-1914), had died or left the company and been replaced by less CP00250.jpgcommitted and competent individuals. For Briggs (as well as the book stewards who came before him), the MBPH’s primary publishing mandate was to issue the church’s religious periodicals which by the late nineteenth century included a weekly newspaper, a monthly magazine, and a variety of Sunday school periodicals. The church made this priority very clear by appointing ordained ministers to serve as editors for these publications, and the book committee reinforced it by diligently recording annual sales figures in its minutes. Issuing trade books by Canadian authors was perceived as a secondary publishing activity during the Briggs years, one that was often funded by the authors themselves with the house marketing these books on a commission basis.

CP00255-2.jpgAfter he joined the MBPH in August 1920, Pierce took Fallis’s directive to establish a “live publishing programme” to heart. While book publishing efforts in 1921 were hampered by a printer’s strike, in 1922 Pierce undertook a pivotal journey to Western Canada. On his return, he recommended to Fallis that The Ryerson Press place a “special emphasis” on educational texts and make “a persistent effort to cultivate the best of Canadian Lit[erature].” During the next several years, Pierce firmly established the new policy, issuing Canadian literary, historical, and educational books by the likes of Frederick Philip Grove, Katherine Hale, Tom MacInnes, E.J. Pratt, and Isabel Skelton, as well as launching two significant series: the Makers of Canadian Literature and the Canadian History Readers.

CP00223-2.jpgPierce’s vision ensured that The Ryerson Press would play a key role in Canada’s cultural development through the middle decades of the twentieth century. Ten years after Pierce stepped down as editor in 1960, the United Church Publishing House (UCPH) sold the Ryerson Press, its trade book arm, to the American-owned McGraw-Hill Book Company of Canada while the larger corporate entity of the UCPH endured. Indeed, the United Church’s religious publications continue to be issued under the UCPH imprint to the present day. Although the sale of Ryerson represented just one example of American incursions into Canadian publishing during that era, the transaction was one of the main events to prompt the establishment of the Ontario government’s Royal Commission on Book Publishing in 1970. The Ryerson name lives on in the combined McGraw-Hill-Ryerson imprint adopted by the American subsidiary after the sale. The firm presently operates in Whitby, Ontario.

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Further Resources

Campbell, Sandra. “Nationalism, Morality and Gender: Lorne Pierce and the Canadian Literary Canon, 1920-1960.” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada 32:2 (Fall 1994): 135-60.

Fee, Margery. “Lorne Pierce, The Ryerson Press, and The Makers of Canadian Literature Series.” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada 24 (1985): 51-69.

Friskney, Janet B. “The Years before Union: Samuel Fallis, Lorne Pierce, and The Ryerson Press, 1919-1926.” Epilogue: Canadian Bulletin for the History of Books, Libraries and Archives 13 (1998-2003): 69-96.

Friskney, Janet B. “From Methodist Literary Culture to Canadian Literary Culture: The United Church Publishing House / The Ryerson Press, 1829-1970.” In Literary Cultures and the Material Book, ed. Simon Eliot, Andrew Nash, and Ian Willison, 379-85. London: The British Library, 2007.

Archival Resources

Lorne and Edith Pierce collection, Queen’s University Archives