About Charles Merriam

Written by Harold Underwood Faulkner

Charles Merriam, benefactor, Merriam-Gilbert Public Library and Co-founder, C & G Merriam Co. (Merriam-Webster, Inc.)

Charles Merriam (Nov. 31, 1806 – July 9, 1887), publisher, descended from Joseph Merriam who came to America in 1638, settling near Concord, Mass., was born at West Brookfield, Mass., the second of nine children of Dan and Thirza (Clapp) Merriam. In 1797 his father and uncle founded a newspaper in that village and under the firm name of E. Merriam & Company continued until 1823 to do miscellaneous printing and publishing. Among their books were several editions of William Perry’s Royal Standard English Dictionary (1801, 1806, 1809), and thus the Merriam name was associated with the publication of dictionaries from an early date. During his boyhood Charles attended district school and worked on his father’s farm. At the age of fourteen he was apprenticed to a printer in Hartford, Conn., where he remained until the death of his father in 1823. After completing his apprenticeship in the shop now conducted by his uncle and his elder brother, George (Jan. 19, 1803-June 22, 1880), he spent a year in the academies at Monson and Hadley, taught school through the next winter, worked in Philadelphia for a few months, and then for several years in Boston as journeyman and foreman in the well-known printing shop of T. R. Marvin. On the receipt of an invitation from Rev. Samuel Osgood to come to Springfield and start a newspaper, he left Boston, and with his brother George went to Springfield to look over the prospects. The time did not seem to be propitious for a newspaper, but the two brothers with another relative established a printing house and bookshop in 1831, which in 1832 became G. & C. Merriam. A third brother, Homer, became a member of the firm in 1856.

Although all three brothers connected with the firm as partners were exceptionally capable, Charles appears to have had the greatest literary bent. In the early days he was in charge of the bookstore, and in later years concerned himself with the publishing end of the work, even trying his hand at writing verse. The firm was successful from the start, but its great fortune came after the death of Noah Webster [q.v.] in 1843, when it purchased from J. S. & C. Adams of Amherst the unsold copies of Webster’s two-volume American Dictionary of the English Language and the right to publish it in the future. Securing the editorial services of Dr. Chauncey Allen Goodrich [q.v.] of Yale, Webster’s son-in-law, the Merriams had the book revised along more conservative lines, printed it in one volume, and reduced the price to six dollars. Extensive advertising and large sales of the Unabridged helped promote the sales of the various abridged editions and the firm quickly bought up the rights of these also. Charles Merriam himself read the complete proof of one edition. The firm also published school books, law books, Bibles, and other volumes, but the business connected with the dictionary became so great that they eventually withdrew from their bookstore and general printing. Charles retired from active participation in the firm at the age of seventy and sold his interest in the business in 1877. Although his main interest was in the publishing venture, he was also a director of the Springfield Fire and Marine Insurance Company and of the old Springfield Bank. He was a man of intense and unremitting industry, of unassuming demeanor, and of simple and scholarly tastes. An ardent and strictly orthodox Congregationalist, he taught a Bible class for many years and was one of the founders in 1842 of the South Church of Springfield. He gave liberally to the church and church institutions, particularly to home and foreign missions. For his native town of West Brookfield he built a public library and endowed it; in the Springfield library he took a lively interest, serving as one of the first members of the association and using his best efforts to establish a free system. When the government of the city of Springfield was organized in 1852, he was a member of the Common Council. He was married twice: on Aug. 11, 1835, to Sophia Eleanor Warriner, who died Apr. 26, 1858; and on May 8, 1860, at Detroit, Mich., to Rachel White (Capen) Gray, a widow. By his first marriage he had three daughters and two sons, one of whom died in infancy; by his second marriage he had one daughter.