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Remembering the Days — Booked solid: the history of USC Press

Remembering the Days - episode 71

For nearly 80 years, the University of South Carolina Press has been publishing books — more than 1,000 and counting — on topics ranging from the history of the Palmetto State to literary figures, cuisine and much more. Pull up a reading chair and learn more about the press came to be. 


Meet Me at the Rocket, a history of the S.C. State Fair

Partners with the Sun, S.C. photographers 1840-1940

S.C. and the American Revolution, a battlefield history

A Guide to Wildflowers in South Carolina

Only Wanna Be With You, the inside story of Hootie & the Blowfish

All of these book titles are obviously linked to the Palmetto State, and they share something else in common: They were all published by the University of South Carolina Press, which in the past 80 years has edited and published more than 1,000 books on topics such as history and culture, literature and cuisine and much more.

I’m Chris Horn, your host for Remembering the Days, and today we’re looking back to how the University of South Carolina Press began, an origin story that includes a little quirkiness that I’ll get to in a minute. You’re also going to hear from now-retired USC history professor Walter Edgar who is USC Press’ best-selling author. And I’m going to introduce you to another historian who has two titles published with the press.

First, a little background on university presses. The earliest ones date all the way back to the 1500s — Cambridge University Press in 1534, Oxford University in 1585. It wasn’t until the late 1800s that university presses emerged in the United States, with Johns Hopkins University, the University of Pennsylvania and University of Chicago among the first out of the gate.

There are now more than 150 university presses in the world, most of them in the United States. In case you’re wondering, here’s the difference between a university press and commercial publishers like Harper Collins or Simon & Schuster.

Big publishing houses are in business to sell lots of books, like tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of a single title. A university press typically publishes titles of scholarly interest, the kinds of books that often appeal to specific and smaller audiences.

Michael McGandy: “We will publish stories that are about our localities that much bigger presses would never touch because we would say this is an important story — we know there are a thousand readers in our locale they will want this. It's really important for them to understand their local history. A Random House or Simon and Schuster that does not move the needle, so to speak. But for us, there's the mission to being a steward of community stories. There are many things that serve the academy and/or serve the community that, of course, don't make financial sense. And we still need to do those things in order to serve.” 

That’s Michael McGandy, director of the USC Press, who says the other big thing that’s different about university presses is that they peer review every book they publish with outside experts. The big commercial publishing houses typically don’t do that.

So, how did the University of South Carolina Press get started? Several professors at the university wanted USC to get in the business of publishing scholarly books and they began lobbying the university administration to start an academic press. The first book from USC Press was titled South Carolina: Economic and Social Conditions, and it was written by Wilfrid Calcott, a history professor and the press’ first director.

Here's the little quirk about the origin of the press that I mentioned earlier. While USC Press officially began in 1944, there was something called University Press that started at USC in 1913. This University Press was an actual printing press that a few professors acquired and used to print their scholarly essays.

The professors did not print any books with their Franklin and Gordon printing press, but they did create some confusion for future catalogers and researchers who, years later, would find academic papers emblazoned with the imprint "University Press, Columbia" and dated long before USC Press came to be. The University Press, the actual printing machine, was shut down in 1922 after private printing companies complained that the professors who owned the device were taking in print orders from nonuniversity clients. Probably not the wisest thing to have done.

USC Press made history in 1950 when it appointed as its director Louise DuBose who was the first woman in the country to lead a university press. The press got some federal funding in those early years to edit and publish the papers of 19th century statesman John C. Calhoun and 18th century statesman Henry Laurens, as well as South Carolina’s Colonial and Revolutionary War-era public records.

Now, USC Press’ sweet spot has always been publishing books about the history, culture, cuisine and so forth of South Carolina. Look in the press’ catalog and you’ll find titles like “Pitchfork Ben Tillman,” which tells the story of South Carolina’s firebrand governor of the 1890s. You’ll also find “The Words and Wares of David Drake,” which looks at the life of an enslaved South Carolinian known as Dave the Potter, who more than 150 years ago made pots inscribed with poetry that now sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

You’ll also find some quirky, entertaining books with the USC Press imprint. “The Cheese Biscuit Queen Tells All,” and “From Barbycu to Barbecue: the Untold Story of an American Tradition” come to mind. One of my favorites from years ago is entitled “Pure Ketchup: A history of America’s national condiment.” Thumb through the pages of this one and you’ll learn that ketchup, once upon a time, used to be made from walnuts, anchovies and even mushrooms. You’ll also find recipes for those old-school concoctions as well as the story of how tomato-based ketchup became the standard.

You’re probably familiar with Walter Edgar, the long-time USC history professor who continues to host a popular podcast called Walter Edgar’s Journal. In the 1990s, Edgar completed a comprehensive history on the state of South Carolina, which USC Press published in 1998 and readers gobbled up.

Walter Edgar: “They printed 10,000  copies and they were gone. They ordered two more printings before Christmas. And it continues to sell 800 or 900 copies a year. I mean, that was 25 years ago.”

Entitled “South Carolina: A History,” Walter Edgar’s opus proved to be enduringly popular because it’s not a dry, boring read. He turned the Palmetto State’s 350-year history into a lively story.

Walter Edgar:  “Book reviewers can be a little bit sharp. All of them said it wasn't just the content, it was it was my writing style that I was — it was like sitting on the back porch with, you know, Uncle Walter and he's telling you a story. Even though I had all the paraphernalia, end notes and all of that, it didn't read like an academic book. And that was one thing I was really trying to do. I wanted this to be read by people outside of higher education.” 

Edgar says a university press, in this case USC Press, was the only option for publishing such a comprehensive history book.

Walter Edgar: “I don't think a commercial press would have would have touched this book. I mean, it's 800 pages. No, they wouldn't have. I have published with the commercial press. I have helped other people do that. Commercial presses now want a manuscript that's about 60,000 words, which is about a 120-page book.”

Edgar has several other titles published by USC Press, including the South Carolina Encyclopedia, which covers everything from A to Z about the Palmetto State.

There are dozens more history books USC Press has published over the years, but let me point out two titles that focus on Charleston. One of them is titled “Low Country at High Tide,” which explores the city of Charleston’s increasingly complicated issues with flooding, a problem that dates back hundreds of years. The other is “Charleston Horsepower,” which tells the history of Charleston’s equine economy through stories about the people who made their living with horses and mules — from drivers, grooms and carriage makers to farriers and veterinarians.

Both books are written by Christina Rae Butler, an historian who lives in downtown Charleston. She says a university press is the best publisher for these types of books.

Christine Rae Butler: "I think it's so easy now to self publish and get information out and put things online, which is wonderful, but there's almost no check and balance for that anymore. And so I think academic presses are more important now than ever because those products are going to be vetted and peer reviewed. And whether you're just a lay person picking up a book for fun or a scholar, you know that that book matters. You know that it's not a curious opinion kind of filtered through as fact. So I think just the legitimacy of the product is really nice in an age where everything is so impermanent, easy to tweak, easy to throw out any idea that you want."

If your bookshelves have gotten a litte bare or if you just need some new reading material, check out the University of South Carolina Press online catalog. I’m sure you’ll find something that will tickle your reading bone.

That’s all for this episode. Next time on Remembering the Days, we’re going back to the early 1970s, when USC left the Atlantic Coast Conference and became an independent. Back in the spring, we talked about why we left the ACC and how we joined the SEC 20 years later, so this next episode will fill in what happened during that two-decade gap. Our special guest will be Alan Piercy, a USC alumnus and author of a soon-to-be-released book about the history of Gamecock sports in the independent era.

That’s next time on Remembering the Days. I’m Chris Horn. Forever to thee.