Uncle Tom's Cabin was the best-selling novel in antebellum America and the second best-selling book overall. The Bible, of course, was number one. Here's an insanely detailed rundown of UTC's sales figures: 300,000 copies in its first year.

This made me curious because I've never heard any mention of what the third-best selling book would be. I'd like to know what other publishing phenomena there were in the antebellum US, in part so I can understand how exceptional Uncle Tom's Cabin was, in part so I can better understand the era's literary culture.

What was the third best-selling book in the antebellum US?

PS - The third-best selling book in the US in the 19th century is probably Ben-Hur, followed by Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward.

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    @jwenting: Why? It has a single correct answer. It's not a request for a source. And intellectual history isn't trivial.
    – two sheds
    Nov 16, 2014 at 14:06
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    I don't believe this is off-topic. Afterall you will only find this information in historical sources. And which book is popular could also provide some interesting period-specific insights. Voting to reopen. Nov 17, 2014 at 4:08
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    I have no idea why this is considered off topic, especially at a time when even broad source requests or blatantly anthropological/archaeological questions are being accepted. Voting to reopen.
    – Semaphore
    Nov 17, 2014 at 10:52
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    @jwenting: Thank you for your explanation. Economic history is on topic, as is social and cultural history (which I think better describes the case). But either way, closing this and telling me to go engage in primary archival research seems like it undermines the point of an exchange like this. If we all had to exhaust the archives before posting, then it would never be legitimate to ask a question.
    – two sheds
    Nov 17, 2014 at 12:52
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    @MarkC.Wallace Done. Meta question created. Nov 17, 2014 at 22:24

2 Answers 2


It is difficult to make exact estimates because reliable figures from different publishers making the same book are hard to come by, especially in the case of pirated editions, which were rampant at that time. The popularity of Uncle Tom's Cabin has been somewhat exaggerated and there were many publications that compare to it. For example, if you include magazines, Harpers was gigantic, publishing 2 million volumes every year.

In 1853, over 300,000 copies of Uncle Tom's Cabin were sold, but the same year Phiney & Ivison sold over 500,000 copies of Sanders' Reading Books. Also, Dickens way outsold Uncle Tom's Cabin. Bleak House alone sold over 250,000 copies, just in its initial runs. Little Dorritt was even more popular and Great Expectations sold millions of copies. Hoyle was also very popular and probably outsold Uncle Tom's Cabin if you counted up all copies and pirated editions. Certain standard school texts like Smith's Geography which racked up 100,000 per year easily probably outsold Uncle Tom's Cabin if you counted all copies over the years.

Probably the number one book of all time from the period was Great Expectations (1861) which has probably sold more than 100 million copies total over the years.

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    Thank you, this is great. Can you point me to the sources where you found these estimates?
    – two sheds
    Nov 17, 2014 at 18:24
  • +1. I entirely forgot just how popular Charles Dickens was across the pond. Nov 17, 2014 at 22:25

According to James David Hart in The Popular Book: A History of America's Literary Taste:

Sylvanus Cobb Jr. “was the most consistently read of all the period’s novelists and his Gunmakers of Moscow probably had an American public second only to that of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (99)

Cobb's books were action-packed pulp, and he was disdained by the educated classes.

Cobb aside, the other most popular authors were women who wrote educational, moralistic tales more in the vein of Harriet Beecher Stowe. These women were prolific, and so were among the bestselling authors of the period. I'll describe two plots below, because the fact that such starchy parables sold well is pretty interesting to me from a cultural perspective:

In 1853, Fanny Fern sold 70,000 copies of Fern Leaves from Fanny’s Portfolio, while Maria Susanna Cummin’s The Lamplighter sold 40,000 copies in eight weeks.

A moralistic romance about an orphan girl befriend by the appropriately named lamplighter, Trueman Flint, and later taken into the home of a kindly woman accidently blinded in youth by a brother who then ran away in remorse . . . The main character were women---women who overcame all sorts of dilemma through Christian fortitude and faith that eventually establishes them securely in prosperous middle-class homes (93-94)

Published in 1850, by 1852 Susan Warner’s The Wide, Wide World was on its 14th edition and continued to sell well after that. It was about

a motherless girl who lives with a cruel aunt, is protected by a kindly farmer, learns what a really Christian home can be through her friendship with the local minister’s daughter, and, though only fourteen, is most affectionately regarded by the minister’s son, who is himself a divinity student (95)

As for Dickens, he was undoubtedly the most-read English author in America, although he had insulted Americans with American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit. Anyway, here's The Economist's estimates of Dickens' total sales (worldwide, I think), 1846-1870:

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James David Hart estimates that Bleak House sold 250,000 copies in the U.S. during this period (62), and so it may be in the running for 4th most popular book.

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    250 Million? Good Lord, what were they doing with all those copies? There were only 33 Million people in the US in 1870.
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 11, 2015 at 16:10
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    @T.E.D.: Geez, thanks. I got carried away with my 000s.
    – two sheds
    Aug 11, 2015 at 16:12
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    Cool. I was afraid you were going to tell me people kept copies in multiple rooms in case they wanted to read it in different places, like televisions. %-)
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 11, 2015 at 16:36
  • Well, Sears catalogues were supposedly used for toilet paper, maybe Dickens was used in more classy homes for the same purpose.
    – Oldcat
    Aug 12, 2015 at 19:32

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