Charles Scribner's Sons was founded as a publishing partnership of Isaac D. Baker and Charles Scribner in 1846. The company set out to discover and publish the work of new American authors. The first work to be published was The Puritans and Their Principles by Edwin Hall, followed by many theological treatises, and the first bestseller, Napoleon and His Marshals by the Rev. J. T. Headley.
After Isaac Baker's death in 1850, Charles Scribner continued to direct the company which was primarily known for its books on religion. In the mid-1860s, Scribner published an American version of German author Johann Peter Lange's Biblical Commentary on the Holy Scriptures. Co-published with T. and T. Clark of Edinburgh, the resulting twenty-six volume work was both a commercial and critical success. Almost a century later, the two publishing houses again collaborated on a revision of Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible.
In 1865, Charles Scribner and Company expanded its range into magazine publishing with the quasi-religious Hours at Home that promoted the virtues by which Americans were supposed to live. In 1870 a new firm, Scribner & Company, was formed to publish a successor magazine entitled Scribner's Monthly. The magazine thrived and began to attract young American writers.
Charles Scribner died of typhoid in Lucerne, Switzerland on August 26, 1871, leaving the business to his eldest son, John Blair Scribner. In 1873 Scribner & Company launched a children's periodical, St. Nicholas, under the editorship of Mary Mapes Dodge, with Frank R. Stockton as assistant editor. The magazine brought many now-classic books to the publishing firm and established it permanently in the field of children's literature.
The 1870s saw the growth of the subscription book department. In association with Messrs. Black of Edinburgh, Scribners brought out the first American edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, selling 70,000 sets. In later years the subscription department published library sets of the works of well-known authors including J. M. Barrie, Henry James, Rudyard Kipling, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Its successor, the reference book department, became the foremost American publisher of reference works such as the Dictionary of American Biography, the Dictionary of American History.
In 1875, Charles Scribner II joined his brother, John Blair Scribner, and other partners, Edward Seymour and Andrew Armstrong, in the firm. Seymour died in 1877, and Armstrong sold his share to the Scribner's in 1878, leaving the book publishing company wholly controlled by the Scribner family. The name was changed to Charles Scribner's Sons. John Blair Scribner died in 1879, leaving his brother to manage the business.
In 1881 one of the outside partners, Roswell Smith, bought up enough stock to acquire individual control of Scribner & Company, the magazine company. Thus, Scribner's Monthly and the children's magazine St. Nicholas passed entirely out of the hands of the Scribner family. The remaining owners were reincorporated as the Century Company and Scribner's Monthly was renamed the Century Magazine. Charles Scribner's Sons agreed to stay out of the magazine publishing business for five years.
Charles Scribner II was joined by his younger brother, Arthur Hawley Scribner, in 1884, and during their almost fifty year partnership, they focused the company's business on publishing American literature. The publications of this period include Frances Hodgson Burnett's Little Lord Fauntleroy, Howard Pyle's The Merry Adventure of Robin Hood, and Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses. A popular series of books, "Scribner Illustrated Classics" became famous for their illustrations by Howard Pyle, Jessie Willcox Smith, N. C. Wyeth, and other members of the Brandywine school. In 1889, Henry Adams published his History of the United States in nine volumes.
Following the five-year moratorium on magazine publishing, the firm re-entered the magazine market and introduced the new Scribner's Magazine in December 1886. Under its original editor, Edward L. Burlingame, the magazine grew into a profitable enterprise and was an important venue for new authors, including Edith Wharton, who would follow their magazine debuts with many successful books. By the turn of the 20th century, Scribner's had virtually cornered the market in American literature and was enjoying a golden age of American book publishing. During this period, authors included Henry James, Theodore Roosevelt, and Elizabeth Wharton. In 1913, Charles Scribner III joined the firm.
During the 1920s, many important new authors were published, including James Boyd, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Ring Lardner, and Thomas Wolfe. In 1928, Charles Scribner II turned over the presidency to his younger brother Arthur, who began the publication of the first volumes of the Dictionary of American Biography. Charles Scribner II died in 1930 and Arthur Scribner died two years later, leaving Charles Scribner III to preside alone. In spite of the Depression, Charles Scribner's Sons continued to promote new authors including Taylor Caldwell, Marcia Davenport, Nancy Hale, and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. During the 1930s a separate children's department was established by Alice Dalgliesh. In 1937, Scribner's Magazine folded after fifty years of publication. The Dictionary of American History was published in 1940.
Charles Scribner III died suddenly in 1952, necessitating the relocation of Charles Scribner IV from his employment as a cryptoanalyst in Washington, D.C. to take charge of the firm in New York. He established the Scribner Library, a line of quality paperbacks that included the titles The Great Gatsby, Tender Is the Night, The Sun Also Rises, and Ethan Frome. Scribner also set out to develop fields of non-fiction such as history, biography, how-to books, and reference works including the Album of American History, and the Dictionary of Scientific Biography.