Joshua Ballinger Lippincott was born in Juliustown, Burlington County, New Jersey, on 18 March 1813. He was the only child of Jacob Wills and Sarah (Ballinger) Lippincott. After receiving a common school education, he went to Philadelphia. There, as a teenager, Joshua entered the book trade as an employee of David Clark, a book binder and bookseller, whose stand was at the southwest corner of North 4th Street and Race Street. Around 1831, Clark’s business failed, and Joshua was put in charge of the business at the request of its creditors. For several years in the mid-1830s, the firm traded as Clark and Lippincott, but in 1836, Lippincott established himself in business as J. B. Lippincott and Company, Booksellers and Stationers, at Clark’s old address. Joshua's company began by selling Bibles and other religious works and then successfully expanded into trade books, which became the largest portion of the business.
On 16 October 1845, Joshua married Josephine Craige. They would have 3 sons and a daughter.
In late 1849, Joshua purchased Grigg, Elliott and Company, the largest book-jobbing and stationery business in the country, whose origins dated back to printer and bookseller Benjamin and Jacob Johnson in 1792. The acquisition helped make the company one of the largest publishers in the United States.
Together with the junior partners of the older firm reorganized as Lippincott, Grambo and Company on 1 January 1850. This firm subsequently conducted business at both the old address as well as Grigg, Elliott’s block at 20 North Fourth Street. Upon the retirement of Henry Grambo in 1855, the firm was again reorganized as J. B. Lippincott and Company, and continued to trade under this name until its incorporation as a private company, J. B. Lippincott Company, in 1885.
In 1861, the firm acquired a lot at 715 – 717 Market Street, where it proceeded to build an extensive book publishing, importing, retailing, wholesaling, and manufacturing business. The firm moved to this location in March 1863 and by 1871 occupied two large, connected buildings that stretched back to Filbert Street; the retail and wholesaling departments and publishing offices in front, facing Market Street and the manufacturing establishment in the rear. These buildings were gutted by a devastating fire in the early morning hours of 29 November 1899, and all stock on hand was destroyed. Electroplates stored in the vaults were spared, and some records also survived. Temporary operations were set up at the nearby Continental Hotel. By August 1901, the firm had moved to a new building at 227 East Washington Square, where it remained until its removal in 1999 to its current offices in the Penn Mutual Building at 530 Walnut Street.
During the 19th century, the firm was particularly noted for its reference works, expensive to produce, including the many editions of Lippincott’s Pronouncing Gazetteer (first published in 1855), the American editions of Chambers’s Encyclopedia, A Dictionary of Universal Knowledge for the People (first published in 1861), the Universal Dictionary of Biography and Mythology (1870), and all but the first volume of Samuel Austin Allibone’s A Critical Dictionary of English Literature (1858-1871). It also published many standard, multi-volume sets of the works of important American and British authors, as well as such works as Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s six-volume History of the Indian Tribes of the United States (1851-1857) and the first 27 volumes of Horace Howard Furness’s edition of A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare (1871-1955).
In 1868 the firm launched Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, a popular periodical containing a complete novel, short stories, poetry, and opinion. It was published in the U.S. and the U.K. until 1914. A unique feature of this magazine was that it published the entire text of a novelette in each issue, including notably Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Sign of the Four” (February 1890), Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (July 1890), and Rudyard Kipling’s “The Light that Failed” (January 1891).
From its early years, medical publications formed an important element of the firm’s list, notably the Annals of Surgery (beginning 1897). In 1878, Lippincott published A Hand-Book of Nursing, the first textbook of nursing in the United States and the first issue of the American Journal of Nursing in 1900 until 1913, when the American Nurses Association transferred the journal to Williams and Wilkins. Other periodicals published by Lippincott included the Motor Register, which it took over in 1907, and Child-Welfare.
When Joshua B. Lippincott died on 5 January 1886, the company passed in equal parts to his three sons, Craige, Walter, and Joshua Bertram (J. Bertram). Eldest son Craige took over as president of the firm and guided the company until his sudden death on 7 April 1911. The board then elected J. Bertram Lippincott as president, and he served in this capacity until his elevation to chairman of the board in 1926.
J. Bertram attended both the Penn Charter School and the Episcopal Academy of Philadelphia. He began studies at the University of Pennsylvania but left at the end of his freshman year to work in his father's publishing house. He became a member of the firm in January 1884. He married Joanna Wharton, the daughter of Joseph Wharton, an industrialist who made his fortune as the co-founder of the Bethlehem Steel Company, through which he introduced the production of nickel and cobalt into the United States. His legacy is honored by the Wharton Business School in Philadelphia, which he endowed.
At the end of the 19th century, the firm began to concentrate on its publishing and manufacturing activities. It was one of the largest and best-known publishers in the world. The retail book department was sold to Strawbridge and Clothier in 1897. Lit Brothers department store purchased the stationery and fancy goods department along with the Market Street storefront in 1898.
The firm first opened a branch office in New York City in 1871 and in 1875 established the London Agency to facilitate the importation of European literature into the United States. A branch office was established in 1897 in Montreal, where it operated until a 1966 move to Toronto. The company had an office in Chicago by 1912, and in 1918, this branch took over management of the school and college textbook lines under the direction of Clarence W. Taber. In 1936, a trade editorial office was opened in New York City at 250 Park Avenue (later moved to 521 Fifth Avenue), and Lippincott purchased two New York publishing firms: Carrick and Evans, Inc. in 1940 and Frederick A. Stokes Company in 1941. The company went public in 1972.
During the 20th century Lippincott also became a major publisher of schoolbooks for elementary and high school education and of references, textbooks, and journals in medicine and nursing. The company also mained a major publisher of trade books. Notable trade titles published during the mid-twentieth century include Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston in 1937 and five of her other early works (1934 – 1942). Lippincott also published Mary O’Hara’s My Friend Flicka in 1941, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960, which would go on to sell more than 40 million copies, and Thomas Pynchon’s first two books (1963, 1966).
The company was sold to Harper and Row in 1978, but Joshua Lippincott's great-grandson Joseph Wharton Lippincott Jr. remained on the Board of Directors until 1987. Harper and Row combined the business with Thomas Y. Crowell, another Harper subsidiary; the new firm’s books were published under the imprint of Lippincott and Crowell until 1981. In 1990, the company was acquired by the Dutch corporation Wolters Kluwer, which merged it with Raven Publishers and then, in 1998, with Williams and Wilkins to form Lippincott Williams and Wilkins, which continues in business today as a publisher of medical texts, reference books, and journals. Succeeding generations of the Lippincott family remained involved in the management of the company into the 2000s.