Like James and John Harper of Harper & Brothers, Henry Oscar Houghton , born in Sutton, Vermont in 1823, had his beginnings in the printing trade. Coming from a family that struggled financially, he began his printers apprenticeship at the age of 13. Later, when he wished to attend University, he used his trade skills to finance his studies by working for a printer in Burlington, Vermont. Even though he had worked while attending courses, he still had a debt of $300 owed to the University upon his graduation in 1846. Working for a Boston printing firm, Freeman & Bolles, he worked off his debt and began to establish himself in the world. In 1848 he was given the opportunity to enter into partnership with the firm, but the required investment money was difficult to raise. Just as the deadline for his investment was coming due, and it looked like he would have to pass on the opportunity, good fortune stepped in by way of a family connection and upon telling him the story, the friend provided the needed shortfall, and the printing firm was established in 1849 as Bolles & Houghton. One of their important clients was the publisher Little, Brown and Company who were well known at the time for their publishing of law text books, and books of essays, and speeches. The proprietor, James Brown, owned a building on the Charles River in Cambridge, and offered it as a new location for Bolles & Houghton's expanding printing business, which they accepted, and moved their business from Boston to this newly renovated building. Upon the retirement of Bolles, the printing firm became H. O. Houghton & Company at the "Riverside Press" in 1852. The press was kept running not only by Little, Brown and Company, but also by the important client of Ticknor & Fields who published many of the best American writers of the day.
So, Henry Oscar Houghton, born of humble origins, had established himself as an emerging businessman by the age of 30. One would think that a printing firm would be enough of a challenge, but upon meeting the interestingly named Melancthon M. Hurd, a printer with common interests and ideas to those of Houghton, they decided to embark on another venture, a publishing firm which would use the Riverside Press as their printer; in 1864, Hurd & Houghton was formed. Houghton made a trip to England in 1864 to seek out master printers and binders to employ in his expanding business, and while there, had a publisher's device, or monogram (two "h's" interlocked) designed by Miss Charlotte Whittingham, the daughter of the Chiswick Press proprietor, Charles Whittingham II (1795-1876). It shows that Houghton was seeking out connections with the very best printers. Whittingham had five children who in various capacities, worked for their father's Chiswick Press. The daughters Charlotte and Elizabeth were artists who designed monograms, embellishments, borders, head and tail pieces for the press. It was Charlotte who married Benjamin Franklin Stevens who also became a partner in the Press for a number of years; Stevens, an American born in 1833 in Barnet, Vermont but a few counties south of Houghton's birthplace, had followed his brother to England to work in his bookselling business. Benjamin and his brother Henry Stevens went on to become well-known bibliographers. According to B. F. Stevens's obituary in the New York Times, March 7, 1902, he married Charlotte Whittingham in 1865. Looking at G. Manville Fenn's Memoir of Benjamin Franklin Stevens (London: Printed at the Chiswick Press, 1903 for private distribution), B. F. Stevens first met Charlotte in 1862 when he was invited to visit at their country home by Charles Whittingham whom he had befriended through his brother. I cannot find a reference to Houghton ever crossing paths with Stevens while he visited the Chiswick Press, but it would have made an interesting meeting. The proverbial small world as they discovered that they both came from the same area back in Vermont and had both attended University in Burlington.
In 1878, Melancthon Hurd retired, and Houghton went into partnership with the publisher James Osgood & Co., which was the successor to the well-known Ticknor & Fields, and later, Fields, Osgood & Co. The new firm was named Houghton, Osgood & Co. This business move brought Houghton the wonderful back list of fine American writers which had been published by Ticknor & Fields and their successors, all good to keep his prized Riverside Press running. It was only two years later, in 1880, that Osgood retired. It was at this moment that Houghton brought in George Harrison Mifflin as full partner in the business calling the firm, Houghton, Mifflin & Co. Unlike Houghton, Mifflin had come from a wealthy background and began his relationship with Houghton by working in the counting room of the Riverside Press, and later, in charge of the Bindery. He became a partner in Hurd & Houghton in 1872 and worked his way up in various capacities.
Henry Oscar Houghton's Riverside Press was, in our modern terminology, Houghton's important and cherished "brand" which he protected by making sure everything was of the highest quality. They issued the "Riverside Classics" and the name came to be known for quality and substance. Horace Elisha Scudder recounts in his excellent memoir of Houghton, entitled Henry Oscar Houghton: a Biographical Outline (Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1897)--from which a great deal of the information here is derived--that Houghton told him once that "'Riverside'. . . is like a diamond which I can hold up before my eyes, and turn it this way and that, and let the light fall on it, and see it sparkle." Scudder realises that in Houghton's publishing and printing business he "was building an institution; he was creating something which should have an organic life of its own." (p. 92).
Having recently looked over McKerrow's book and other items on printers marks, I can see the possible influence of certain Parisian printers devices from around the 1490s upon the design used for the Riverside Press of Houghton, Mifflin & Co. The border structure with lettering and the detailed cut for the image can possibly find their inspiration in the printer's devices of Antoine Caillaut or André Bocard among others. The motto "Tout Bien Ou Rien" was a one that appealed to Houghton for it fit nicely with his strong feelings of the importance of perfection and hard work, and if one was going to do something, it should be the best possible. He had used the motto for his personal bookplate and it started to be used in his publisher's device in the 1880s.
Sources cite that the original inspiration for the design of the publisher's device was one of the illustrations by Elihu Vedder for the fine edition of Edward Fitzgerald's translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam published by Houghton, Mifflin & Co. in 1894. Sidney L. Smith--who seems to be known now for his bookplate designs--was given the design job, and though perhaps inspired by the Vedder illustration, it certainly feels informed by the historical precedence of Parisian printer's marks. The first example (from a late 1890s edition of Out of the East by Lafcadio Hearn) with the text border, the heavy cut, the classical figure with the double-piped instrument or aulos, the oil-lamp or lucerne of classical antiquity, the image of a printing press, the meandering stream or river, the shield with the initials of the publishing firm, the tree of knowledge, and the rising sun combine to create an image of a certain density and heaviness which harkens back to a much earlier age and would not be too out of place with printer's devices from Paris in the 1490s.
The second example, (from a 1920 issue of Charles Eliot Norton's translation of Dante's Divine Comedy) is the work of Bruce Rogers who worked for firm between 1895-1912; it retains the essential elements, but there is a much more open feel, with a cleaner aesthetic appeal, the old border design and the sun having been dropped. The lucerne in the foreground becomes more of a focal point, and the shield with the firm's initials is also much more prominent, while the motto is placed on a banner draped in the tree and the choice of typography, although not modern, is slightly updated.
The third example (from Editorials by Lafcadio Hearn edited by C. W. Hutson, 1926), breaks free from the original design, shifting the tree to the side and having the figure sitting on a classical plinth. The shield is now the bearer of the motto and the lucerne is even more prominent. Though more overtly classical in its allusions, it has a much more contemporary feel within its compact, clean circular design. This device is also blind-stamped on the upper board of this particular edition, but upon looking closely, it is a slightly different, and later cut, the figure poorly executed. (There are many other variations of the device such as can be found here, here, and here.)
In 2007, Houghton Mifflin acquired Harcourt publishers and is now known as Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Their device retains a semblance of the piper, Arion-like, riding a dolphin.