Alvin J. Johnson

Last updated

Alvin Jewett Johnson (1827-1884), also known as A.J. Johnson, led the New York City publishing company which published Johnson's Family Atlases from 1860 to 1887. These atlases were published under his name alone or with Browning (1860–62) and Ward (1862-1866). These atlases are fascinating because sequence of atlas maps documented the growth of the United States during this quarter of century, showing the step-by-step expansion of railroads and the development of new states, counties and towns. As the years went along, the maps were updated creating for each map a set of map states or variations. [1] These atlases and loose maps taken from them have become of increasing value to collectors and historians. In order for these loose maps to be of full use to historians for study (new counties showed up within two years of their creation and new states of the union almost as soon as they were announced) loose maps from these atlases need to be definitively dated. Collectors also need to know the true date of the maps; while some of the states/variations were utilized for up to two years, many changes occurred sometimes within one year, thus making some versions more plentiful than others. [2]


Early life

Alvin Jewett Johnson, who signed his letters as A. J. Johnson, was originally a book seller who later in his career turned his attention towards publishing maps, atlases, and books. Johnson was born in Wallingford, Vermont, on September 23, 1827. In 1851, he married Helena Warner of Sunderland, Massachusetts, and had a son and two daughters. [3]

Johnson described his early life as coming from a poor family in which he was the eldest of 12 children. When he was 11 years old he began to work on farms for $5 a day plus board, work he continued until he was 21 years old. He came from a background in which sons owed their fathers time and dedication until they were 21 years of age, and Johnson "bought his time" back by offering his father $25 a year until he reached 21. At the same time he entered high school at the Black River Academy and was enrolled there until his education was completed, supporting himself during this time by working on farms in the summer and teaching lower school in the winter. When he was 22 years old, he moved to Lunenburg Court House in southern Virginia, where he taught for three years, during which time he married.

Book salesman

Three years later in 1853, he returned to the North and started working as a book canvasser, selling books and atlases door to door by subscription. [4] Only a little detail is available about Johnson's early life as a book canvasser and it remains unclear as to where and exactly when it began and what products he was selling. However, in an 1868 letter to his major New England agent, Lewis W. Fairchild, Johnson described how he worked in Boston, as a "general agent" for Colton. [5] This is the first indication of a relationship between Johnson and Colton. It is not clear if Johnson exclusively sold Colton products, or sold other books as well during all or any of the years before coming to New York. This Fairchild letter also indicates that Johnson moved to Ohio after working for Colton in Boston.

Just prior to coming to New York to develop his publishing company, it appears as if Johnson's Ohio base where he lived and worked was Cleveland, Ohio. The New York City Directory first lists Johnson in their 1855-56 edition, describing him as a publisher living in Ohio. [6] In another 1868 letter to Fairchild, Johnson recalls that in 1855 his "old headquarters" were in Cleveland. [7] He indicates further in the same letter, that one of his helpers in Ohio was Browning, who was a joint publisher with Johnson from 1859 through 1862. Neither Johnson's nor Browning's name shows up in a city directory of Cleveland in the year immediately before either of them came from Ohio to New York. Unfortunately, there were no Cleveland Directories in the two years before that. Cleveland was, however, the home of a book and stationery dealer named Henry P. B. Jewett, [8] who was a distant relative of Johnson, [9] and it is possible that Johnson used Jewett's business as his Cleveland base.

Map publisher

The first evidence that Johnson entered the map publishing business comes from 1854. At that time, while still living in Cleveland, Johnson teamed up with Samuel N. Gaston, of New York, to produce a new map of the United States titled, "A New Map of our Country". [10] The two of them also published the same map in 1855, which was attributed as being published in Cleveland as well as in New York; the same year, Johnson's name first showed up in the New York City directory, as a publisher and at an address later used by Gaston in 1856. [11] It is not clear the role that Johnson played in the financing and/or the production of the Map of our Country, but, in a letter to Fairchild, he referred to himself as the regional agent for the map. [12] The relationship with Gaston did not seem to lead far, and the next year, 1856, Gaston published the Map of our Country and a two volume geography, The Diamond Atlas, with Charles Morse. [13]

In 1857, Johnson appears to have moved to New York, where the New York City Directory lists him as a map publisher, and as living in New York. In that same year, Johnson made what appears to be his second foray into the map publishing business when, with D. Griffing Johnson, he produced "A new map of the Union with the adjacent Islands and Countries, from authentic sources". [14] D.G. Johnson had been a map engraver and publisher on his own from at least 1847, when Ristow notes he published a map, "Johnson's [D.G.] Illustrated & Embellished Steel Plate Map of the World on Mercator's Projection.", which was republished by Colton the next year. [15] Most evidence points to the fact that D.G. and A.J. Johnson were not related, but it is possible they were. It does not seem as if A.J. Johnson had the capacity at that time in his career to actually produce maps, and his relationship with D.G. Johnson was probably as a financial backer, similar to what appears to have been his original relationship with Gaston. Both the 1856–57 and 1858-59 New York City Directory's, list D.G. and A.J. Johnson at the same address in New York City. [16] After that, D.G. Johnson's name disappears from both map attributions and directory listings, and he died five years later in 1863. [17]

Atlas publisher

By the mid 1860s, the American atlas industry had matured into a thriving business. The major players in this field at that time were S. Augustus Mitchell and Joseph H. Colton. Mitchell had been publishing atlases since 1831, the year he first issued his New American Atlas, a reissue of Finely's similarly titled atlas of 1826. [18] By the time he retired and handed over his business to his son, S. Augustus Mitchell, Jr., in 1860, he was the major publisher of atlases and maps in America. In that same year his company published the first edition of Mitchell's New General Atlas, which was published until 1879 by the Mitchell firm and from 1880 to 1893 by other publishers. Colton, who had been publishing maps since about 1833, first published atlases in 1855, with the first edition of Colton's Atlas of the World Illustrating Physical and Railroad Geography. [19] This grander, folio sized, and by 1856 two volume new atlas, and its 1857 successor, Colton's General Atlas, produced by this well known map publisher, quickly became a major competitor to Mitchell's maps and atlases [20] Also in 1860, Alvin Jewett Johnson published another competing atlas, Johnson's New Illustrated (steel plate) Family Atlas, with Descriptions, Geographical, Statistical, and Historical. While Johnson was a newcomer to the map and atlas industry, and never gained the historical fame of either Mitchell or Colton, his atlases and its maps, published until 1887, appeared to have been popular, and, over the last decade, have become increasingly valued among collectors.

See also

Related Research Articles

Wilhelm Eduard Weber German physicist

Wilhelm Eduard Weber was a German physicist and, together with Carl Friedrich Gauss, inventor of the first electromagnetic telegraph.

Alexander Keith Johnston (1804–1871) Scottish geographer

Alexander Keith Johnston FRSE FRGS FGS FEGS LLD was a Scottish geographer and cartographer.

Charles Anderson Dana American journalist, author, and senior government official

Charles Anderson Dana was an American journalist, author, and senior government official. He was a top aide to Horace Greeley as the managing editor of the powerful Republican newspaper New York Tribune until 1862. During the American Civil War, he served as Assistant Secretary of War, playing especially the role of the liaison between the War Department and General Ulysses S. Grant. In 1868 he became the editor and part-owner of the New York Sun. He at first appealed to working class Democrats but after 1890 became a champion of business-oriented conservatism. Dana was an avid art collector of paintings and porcelains and boasted of being in possession of many items not found in several European museums.

Arthur Cleveland Coxe American bishop

Arthur Cleveland Coxe was the second Episcopal bishop of Western New York. He used Cleveland as his given name and is often referred to as A. Cleveland Coxe.

Walter William Ristow was the head librarian of the map library at the New York Public Library and later the Library of Congress. Ristow graduated with a degree in geography from the University of Wisconsin in 1931. He went on to earn a master's degree in geography from Oberlin College and a doctorate from Clark University. Ristow joined the Library of Congress in 1946 and became chief of its map department in 1967. He retired in 1978.

James Grant Wilson Union Army general, and publisher (1832-1914)

James Grant Wilson was an American editor, author, bookseller and publisher, who founded the Chicago Record in 1857, the first literary paper in that region. During the American Civil War, he served as a colonel in the Union Army. In recognition of his service, in 1867, he was nominated and confirmed for appointment as a brevet brigadier general of volunteers to rank from March 13, 1865. He settled in New York, where he edited biographies and histories, was a public speaker, and served as president of the Society of American Authors and the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society.

William Dorsheimer United States lawyer, politician and journalist

William Dorsheimer was an American lawyer, journalist, newspaper publisher, and politician.

Mitchell Map Historic map of the United States of America

The Mitchell Map is a map made by John Mitchell (1711–1768), which was reprinted several times during the second half of the 18th century. The Mitchell Map was used as a primary map source during the Treaty of Paris for defining the boundaries of the newly independent United States. The map remained important for resolving border disputes between the United States and Canada as recently as the 1980s dispute over the Gulf of Maine fisheries. The Mitchell Map is the most comprehensive map of eastern North America made during the colonial era. Its size is about 6.5 feet (2.0 m) wide by 4.5 feet (1.4 m) high.

Samuel Galloway American politician

Samuel Galloway was a U.S. Representative from Ohio.

Jonathan Leavitt was a bookbinder who later co-founded the New York City publishing firm of Leavitt & Trow, one of the nation's first publishing houses. Leavitt was also co-founder of another early New York publishing house with his brother-in-law Daniel Appleton. George Palmer Putnam, who went on to found a New York publishing dynasty, received his first job from Leavitt. Eventually Jonathan Leavitt went into business on his own, and after his death the firm was run by his son George Ayres Leavitt.

August Semmendinger American photography manufacturer

August Semmendinger was a manufacturer of photographic apparatuses and the inventor of the Excelsior Wet Plate Camera. Semmendinger first made his cameras in New York City. The second factory where he built his cameras was located in Fort Lee, New Jersey.

James Redpath American journalist and abolitionist

James Redpath was an American journalist and anti slavery activist.

Samuel William Johnson American chemist

Samuel William Johnson was a U.S. American agricultural chemist. He promoted the movement to bring the sciences to the aid of American farmers through agricultural experiment stations and education in agricultural science.

J. H. Colton United-States geographer and mapmaker

Joseph Hutchins Colton, known professionally as J.H. Colton, founded an American mapmaking company which was an international leader in the map publishing industry between 1831 and 1890.

Mitchell Beazley Publishers Limited is a British book publisher which is particularly specialised in atlases, reference books, natural history books, cook books, garden books, and wine books.

Christopher Colles Irish engineer

Christopher Colles (1739–1816) was an Irish and American engineer and inventor, known for his work on numerous inland improvement projects, among them a water distribution system in New York City, canals to link the Atlantic seaboard to the American interior, and a road atlas of the northeastern United States. Described by his contemporaries and by historians as "ingenious" and "restless," many of his projects proved too ambitious to be realised and few attained real success. In certain quarters he was described contemptuously as a "visionary projector," yet he was also credited with being the first to conceive a waterway to the West that would ultimately be achieved by the Erie Canal.

George Beach was an American farmer, merchant and politician from New York.

John Punchard Jewett (1814–1884) was a Boston publisher, best known for first publishing Uncle Tom's Cabin in book form in 1852.

John Fowler Trow American publisher

John Fowler Trow was a printer and publisher in New York City.

The New-York Directory, published in 1786, was the first extant directory for New York City and the third published in the United States. It listed 846 names. A year earlier, the first two in the country were published in Philadelphia – the first, compiled by Francis White, was initially printed October 27, 1785, and the second, compiled by John Macpherson (1726–1792), was initially printed November 22, 1785.


  1. Lourie, I.,"The Atlases of A.J. Johnson",Portolan, No. 9, Winter 2000-2001, pp.7-17,
  2. Lourie, I., "The U.S. Johnson Map Project's Rarity Index for Johnson Atlas Maps", Portolan, No 91, Winter 2014, pp. 23-41
  3. Jewett, F. C., History and Genealogy of the Jewetts, Vol. 2, New York: Grafton Press Genealogical Publishers, 1908, p.671
  4. Much of the information for this section on Johnson's early history came from an interview Johnson gave as the host of a celebration of Horace Greeley's 61st birthday and chronicled in: Wingate, C.F., Sketch of the Celebration of the Sixty-first Birthday of the Hon. Horace Greeley, LL.D., at the residence of his Intimate Friend, Mr. Alvin J. Johnson, Printed not Published, New York, 1872, pp. 15-19. Similar information was found in an obituary: "The Hand of Death. Sketch of the Career of A.J. Johnson, the Well-known Publisher," Boston Herald, Tuesday, April 22, 1884.
  5. Johnson, A.J., Letter to Lewis W. Fairchild, October 12, 1868, 1868, Fairchild Letters, New Haven, CT:Yale University Library, Manuscript Division, Box 1, Folder 5, "September–October, 1868"
  6. Trow's New York City Directory, H. Wilson, Compiler, for the year ending May 1, 1856. New York: John F. Trow, 1855-56 edition
  7. Johnson, A.J., Letter to Lewis W. Fairchild, October 17, 1868, 1868, Fairchild Letters, New Haven, CT:Yale University Library, Manuscript Division, Box 1, Folder 5, "September–October, 1868
  8. Found in various Cleveland city directories published between 1852 and 1859
  9. Jewett, F. C., History and Genealogy of the Jewetts, Vol. 2, New York: Grafton Press Genealogical Publishers, 1908, p.671
  10. Map in the Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress: A new map of our country, present and prospective, compiled from Government Surveys and other reliable sources. Published by Gaston and Johnson. New York, 1854. Call number G3700, 1854, .G3, TIL. The 1855 edition is identical with the date, 1855; its call number is G3700, 1855, .G3, TIL
  11. Map in the Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress: A new map of our country, prospective and present, compiled from Government Surveys and other reliable sources. Published by Morse and Gaston. 115 & 117 Nassau Street, New York, 1856. Call number G3700, 1856, .G3, TIL
  12. Johnson, A.J., Letter to Lewis W. Fairchild, October 17, 1868, 1868, op. cit.
  13. Colby, Charles. The Diamond Atlas, descriptions of all countries exhibiting their actual and comparative extent and their present political divisions. Founded on the most recent discoveries and rectifications. By Charles Colby, AM, editor of "Morse'e General Atlas of the World". Two volumes: The Western Hemisphere and The Eastern Hemisphere. New York: Samuel N. Gaston, 1857.
  14. Map in the Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress: A new map of the Union with the adjeacent Island and Countries, from authentic sources. Published by D.G. & A.J. Johnson, Trinity Building, 111 Broadway, New York, 1857 (stored under United States, "A new map of the Union")
  15. Ristow, W.W., American Maps and Mapmakers, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1985, p.318
  16. Trow's New York City Directory, H. Wilson, Compiler, for the year ending May 1, 1859. New York: John F. Trow, 1858-59 edition
  17. Obituary in the New York Evening Post, Friday, April 9, 1863.
  18. Ristow, W.W., American Maps and Mapmakers, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1985, p.303
  19. Ristow, W.W., American Maps and Mapmakers, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1985, p.313
  20. Bosse, D., "A Canvasser's Tale," The Map Collector, No. 57, Winter, 1991, p.22.