Authored By: Janet F. Friskney
“The Ryerson Press” formed the educational and trade-book arm of the Toronto-based Methodist Book and Publishing House (MBPH; after 1925, The United Church Publishing House) from July 1919 to late 1970, when its publishing assets were sold to the McGraw-Hill Company of Canada. Prior to issuing works under “The Ryerson Press” imprint, the MBPH (whose own origins traced back to the Methodist denominational newspaper The Christian Guardian [est. 1829]) had published most trade titles under the name of its current “book steward” (general manager).
From the mid-nineteenth century, and particularly under the successive book stewardships of Reverends Samuel Rose (1865-1879) and William Briggs (1879-1919), the MBPH began issuing volumes of “Methodist Canadian Literature.” Authored predominantly by ministers and missionaries of the church, these works encompassed biography, autobiography/memoir, history, statistical compilations, and denominational historical fiction. During the final two decades of the nineteenth century, a more general cultural commitment to Canadian-authored works emerged, although surviving contracts indicate that a substantial number of these volumes of history, autobiography, poetry, and fiction were fully or partially funded by their authors (Friskney, 172-73). Publication of Canadian-authored books declined significantly during the later years of Briggs’ stewardship as significant personnel departed or died, and war-time constraints on manufacturing took hold.
On becoming book steward in June 1919, Reverend S. W. Fallis committed to revitalizing original book publishing. On July 1, 1919, “The Ryerson Press” became the trade-book imprint. In 1920, he recruited Reverend Lorne Pierce to be “Literary Critic and Advisor,” a position that would involve Pierce in original book publishing. Two years later, Pierce was made “Book Editor and Literary Advisor,” and head of the newly created Educational Department. Given authority both to respond to submitted manuscripts, and to solicit them, Pierce forged ahead ambitiously in both textbook and trade-book publishing. Royalty arrangements with authors became the norm while his commitment to attractive books that would compete in the market saw him first recruit Canadian artists as book illustrators, and then, in 1949, hire a full-time art director Arthur Steven (Campbell 183, 473; Wallace, 6; Speller). Through the middle decades of the twentieth century, and especially during Pierce’s years as editor, Ryerson Press stood out as one of Canada’s largest and most prominent publishers of original educational and trade books. When Pierce retired in 1960, he was succeeded as editor by John Webster Grant, “an esteemed church historian and academic,” but Grant would only remain in the role until 1963 (Bradley-St-Cyr 48, 58-59).
While editor, Pierce pursued educational publishing extremely seriously; he was deeply committed to Canadian-made textbooks. As his biographer Sandra Campbell explains, the historical textbooks Pierce published offered schoolchildren “a romantic, epic, and whiggish vision of Canadian history,” one frequently reinforced by illustrations rendered by C. W. Jefferys (318). Even before the formal creation of the Educational Department, Pierce oversaw publication of two public school histories by George Wrong in 1921. In 1924, Pierce launched the “Canadian History Readers,” an illustrated pamphlet series that highlighted heroes and events. In the 1930s, Ryerson began to co-issue with Macmillan of Canada two successful, long-running graded textbook series: the Canadian Treasury Readers for elementary schools and the Canada Books of Prose and Verse for secondary schools. One notable educatinal venture after Pierce’s retirement was Ryerson Paperbacks; launched in the mid-1960s, this reprint series targeted the post-secondary market with works from the firm’s backlist.
In the realm of trade-book publishing, Ryerson issued a wide range of original works, some co-published with American and/or British firms. Original publishing was undertaken alongside Ryerson’s work as a Canadian agent to foreign publishers. Revenues generated through agency arrangements, and by domestic educational publishing, underwrote original trade-book publishing for Canada’s small, but highly competitive, English-language market. Between 1937 and 1964, Ryerson issued 20 trade titles that won Governor General’s Literary Awards.
Between 1919 and 1970, Ryerson’s output of original non-fiction included an eclectic blend of history (local, regional, national), biography, autobiography/memoir, travel, politics, economics, education, current affairs, religion, art, cooking, humour, sports, and philosophy. Many were stand-alone titles; others appeared as part of series. The 1930s, for example, witnessed both the scholarly “Relations of Canada and the United States,” a joint venture with Yale University Press supported by Carnegie funding, and the launch of the “Canadian Art Series,” which comprised booklets highlighting artists or movements. The reception of the latter, notes Campbell, captured the prevailing “debate over modernism,” with the series being “criticized by artists and art historians who had a more avant-garde and/or less nationalistic view of Canadian art” (Campbell 360-61).
Ryerson’s publications in the area of Canadian poetry and fiction durng Pierce’s years as editor included literary anthologies, the bio-critical “Makers of Canadian Literature” series, singular literary critical studies by scholars like E. K. Brown and Desmond Pacey, and the “Ryerson Poetry Chap-books” series. Chap-books titles, which appeared over a stretch of 35 years, featured both traditional poets and “a roll call of modernist writers” (Campbell 264). Outside this series, volumes of verse appeared from, among others, Earle Birney, Bliss Carman, E.J. Pratt, and modernists A.M. Klein, Dorothy Livesay, Anne Marriott, and P. K. Page. Works of fiction included new titles authored by Will R. Bird, Philip Child, Frederick Philip Grove, Raymond Knister, Edward McCourt, and Laura Goodman Salverson, as well as reprints from Nellie McClung and L. M. Montgomery. Novels by several of these authors appeared as winners of the Ryerson Fiction Award, a competition run irregularly by the firm between 1942 and 1960 that represented an “attempt to remedy the lack of a strong fiction list” at Ryerson, but whose selections “did not really change the nature of Ryerson’s fiction list,” which was perceived as conservative (Campbell 357). When Grant became editor, he hired John Robert Colombo and Earle Toppings to support Ryerson’s Canadian literature list (Bradley-St-Cyr 25). Colombo’s brief time at Ryerson included interactions with fiction authors like Hugh Garner and Alice Munro (Bradley-St-Cyr 54) whose work first appeared on Ryerson’s list in the 1960s.
The McGraw-Hill Company of Canada’s purchase of The Ryerson Press in late 1970 greatly enriched the American subsidiary’s textbook backlist; going forward, it published under the imprint McGraw-Hill Ryerson. Public outcry about the sale of The Ryerson Press, which occurred immediately after that of Gage (another historic Canadian educational publisher) to American buyers, provoked the Ontario Royal Commission on Book Publishing.
Archives and Papers
United Church of Canada Board of Publication Fonds, The United Church of Canada Archives (Toronto)
Lorne Pierce Papers, Queen’s University Archives (Kingston, ON)
Bradley-St-Cyr, Ruth. “The Downfall of the Ryerson Press.” Ph.D. diss., University of Ottawa, 2014.
Campbell, Sandra. Both Hands: A Life of Lorne Pierce of Ryerson Press. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013.
Friskney, Janet B. “Beyond the Shadow of William Briggs, Part II: Canadian-authored Titles and the Commitment to Canadian Writing,” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada 35.2 (1997): 161-207.
Speller, Randall. “Arthur Steven at the Ryerson Press: Designing the Post-war Years (1949-1969)," Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada 41.2 (2003): 7-44.
Wallace, W. Stewart. The Ryerson Imprint. Toronto: Ryerson Press, c.1954.
Margery Fee, “Lorne Pierce, Ryerson Press, and The Makers of Canadian Literature Series,” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada 24 (1985): 51-69.
Janet B. Friskney, “Beyond the Shadow of William Briggs, Part I: Setting the Stage and Introducing the Players,” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada 33.2 (1995): 121-163.
Imprinting Canada: The McGraw-Hill Ryerson Press Collection [online exhibit], Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada. 
Eli MacLaren, Little Resilience: The Ryerson Poetry Chap-Books. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020.
George L. Parker, “The Sale of Ryerson Press: The End of the Old Agency System and Conflicts over Domestic and Foreign Ownership in the Canadian Publishing Industry, 1970-1986,” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada 40.2 (2002): 7-56.