Kingsport Press Began in the Heart of a Mountainous Wilderness
In the heart of a mountainous Tennessee wilderness that was said to be at the center of the book-buying population of the United States, one of the world's greatest printers began operation on January 15, 1923.
On that day, the three million dollar Kingsport Press began to hum with its first book run, producing copies of the best seller, the New Testament. The latest methods of quantity production were applied, allowing books to be manufactured at prices within reach of the needy.
The Kingsport Press as it looks circa early 1930s
The enterprise was so remarkable that its daily capacity soared to 100 thousand volumes. Moreover, for the first time in history, the components of book manufacturing became fully integrated. Instead of it being a single unit of management, the company consisted of numerous affable groups. It purchased nearby forests, which experts estimated would supply paper for 90 years (until 2013). It also owned an abundance of coalfields within 40 miles from the main plant and controlled the railroad, which ran through Kingsport transporting coal and printed books.
Further, the new company acquired paper and pulp mills, glue and ink factories, a cloth finishing plant, bookbindery, plate making and shipping departments. In effect, the book was brought out of the earth with sources of power and raw material close at hand.
L. M. Adams, President of the J.J. Little & Ives Company, bookmakers, became president of the new firm. His new work was the realization of a dream he cherished for a long time - producing textbooks, Bibles and classics at prices so inexpensive that even the indigent could afford them. “(Kingsport) is the place where the thing can be done," he said. "Everything we need to make a book is there.”
The concept for the operation began in 1909 when a Wall Street banking house, Blair & Co., financed a group of men in the purchase of 500 thousand acres of coalfields on what is now known as Clinch Mountain in Tennessee. To remove the coal from the area, the new company built the Carolina, Clinchfield & Ohio Railroad that traveled 340 miles through the Appalachian Mountains.
The difficulties of the task were realized when one considered the fact that there were 16 tunnels within a 15-mile stretch. Thus they opened up an almost virgin country and built two towns – Kingsport, TN and Erwin, NC. Industries sprang up rapidly at Kingsport. A cement plant was established in 1910 that turned out more than 4,000 barrels a day. George H. Mead, pulp and paper maker at Chillicothe, Ohio, constructed a pulp mill and an extract plant was built to make acid for tanning hides.
Mr. Adams immediately visualized an opportunity for supplying to the public inexpensive books manufactured there. “We have coal, forests and transportation,” he said, “so why not do it. One of the first things he did was to find out how cheaply the classics could be produced.
Three of the many books manufactured by the Kingsport Press
Treasure Island became the first edition classic chosen from a series of 20. The book was slightly over 4 by 6.5 inches, bound in cloth using new plates with type that offered comfortable reading and possessed an attractive red and gold binding. Adams realized that the cost per book could be held to ten cents provided they printed millions of copies and sold them to consumers. To realize this goal, they contracted with the Woolworth Company that had over a thousand stores. Management felt that this was the only company that could distribute so stupendous an output throughout the country.
The book soon became available to youngsters all across the country. They could travel with Robert Lewis Stevenson to a fabulous island, do battle with pirates and sing of 15 men on a dead man's chest. The Kingsport Press’s production capabilities were unequaled by any other publishers. While it was noted that Ford Motor Company produced 100 thousand automobiles and tractors per month, the Press could crank out 100 thousand volumes in a day.
The Kingsport strategy called for a minimum annual output of 8.6 million books. Identical trucks were used throughout the entire expansive plant. In many of the processes the material was not handled by men, but lifted by machinery from a truck, put through a process and delivered to another truck.
The first "run" called for 50 thousand New Testaments, but the usual order was for 500 thousand books. Since orders for such quantities could be obtained only for dictionaries, primers, grammar school textbooks and certain classics, printing was scheduled accordingly.
The large size of the printing plant could be gauged from the fact that its concrete foundation was a mile and a half in circumference, covering three and a half acres. It was so massive that no single photograph could be taken of its entire size until Adams eventually had aerial photos made.
Among publishers and printers in New York, gossip had it at first that the Kingsport Press was a Standard Oil enterprise. However, J.J. Little & Company, Inc., owned the Kingsport Press and Adams was credited with being the brainchild of its success.
Kingsport became the first town in the United States where every worker was insured - all employers were given policies from an insurance company with no pre-examination requirements. Kingsport had become known for its work to make it a health center. Not only were physicians, dentists and nurses provided in the factories without charge, they also did infant welfare work. There were baby clinics and domestic science classes with an elaborate educational program.
In 1963, the Kingsport Press had the dubious distinction of being the target of the nation’s longest strike, which continued to the spring of 1967. After a series of mergers that began in 1969, the former company is now owned by Quebecor World, a business that began operation in Montreal, Canada, in 1954. Today, Kingsport Press books can be found in old book stores, flea markets, antique stores and on E-Bay.