History's People: Atglen's Schiffer Publishing Company Making History

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Rob Lukens, Ph.D.
Originally Published in the Daily Local News
Release Date: 
November 29, 2012

When it comes to the materials of our past, one Chester County publishing company has had it figured out for decades.  From furniture and textiles to toys and Christmas ornaments, for nearly forty years, Schiffer Publishing has produced thousands of books that teach us our history through objects. The business, a true family affair, has always had its roots planted firmly in Chester County.

This story begins in the 1940s, when young newlyweds Margaret and Herbert Schiffer settled down on a dairy farm in Pocopson. Herbert, a New York native, had just graduated from Cornell's agriculture program and was lured to the area by Chester County's remarkable soil and climate. In 1953 they relocated to an eighteenth-century farmhouse in West Chester.

Margaret, who was from Bryn Mawr, wanted to furnish the home with period pieces. This desire spurred a lifelong love of antiques that defined both of them. With the help of Bart Anderson, the Chester County Historical Society's director, and others, she researched early inventories and archival documents to understand the actual items used hundreds of years ago. From candlesticks to fine furniture, she collected these wares and sent photographers out to document those she didn't own. 

Herbert, meanwhile, attended guiding classes at the Winterthur Museum in Wilmington and became fascinated with fine decorative arts. He opened an antiques shop on Route 30 in Exton.

Margaret and Herbert's son Peter grew up in this environment and became part of the family antiques enterprise. At a very young age he developed a discerning eye for detail and a keen business sense. While attending Goddard College in Vermont, he came home on holidays and weekends to work the family business. 

The Schiffer family's expertise set the stage for the birth of Schiffer Publishing. They determined that all of these items and Margaret's research "shouldn't sit hidden away in some archive," but should be shared. Margaret responded by publishing her seminal 476-page work Furniture and its Makers in Chester County by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 1966.  Shortly thereafter, Scribner's publishing approached her to do a book on early needlework, which turned into Historical Needlework of Pennsylvania (1968).

It was then that son Peter  saw an opportunity. He and wife Nancy incorporated Schiffer Publishing in 1974. Their first book was a spiral bound account called Chester County, Pennsylvania Inventories, 1681-1850. "He never published a book before and we were all scared to death," Margaret recalls today.

Like the antiques business, from day one Schiffer Publishing was a family affair managed by Peter and Nancy. Peter met his wife, Nancy Nutt of Wallingford, at the Philadelphia Antiques show in 1972. It was a chance encounter. Nancy, then a member of the first graduate museology class at George Washington University, was watching a booth for a dealer that needed extra help.

The publishing company developed on the farm where the entire family lived. Over the years, the bottom of the barn in West Chester turned into the antiques shop and the publishing was done in the old milkhouse. The old chicken house became a warehouse.

From that point on, Schiffer Publishing specialized in the field of material culture - the study of items from the past. In those early years, they produced works on arts and crafts,  antique hardware, mirrors, clocks, and collectibles. Herbert, Nancy and Peter jointly published a book on Chinese export porcelain. They did it all on the typewriter and had it shrunk to fit into book form.

The impact of these and other works was immense. As described by Brock Jobe, Professor of American Decorative Arts, Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library, "my introduction to Schiffer Books came shortly after it produced a revised version of Margaret Schiffer’s ground-breaking book, Furniture and its Makers of Chester County, Pennsylvania in 1978."  Jobe calls this "a monumental undertaking" which "epitomizes the tremendous impact that this publishing house has had on the decorative arts through its publication of new scholarship as well as its commitment to reissue major works of the past."

The timing was perfect for such a venture. The 1970s were the heyday of historical interest, a widespread public fervor catalyzed by the Bicentennial. Across the United States, American history was front and center as communities wrote histories, restored historic buildings, and held commemorative events. As Nancy explains today, the Bicentennial "had a long tail" as its impact continued on for at least 25 years.

Their titles branched into paperbacks, with works on antique Christmas ornaments, folk art, architecture, and local history. All of these contained never-before published documentation, stories, and images that compiled the work of the Schiffers and other experts into authoritative volumes that still resonate today. Chester County Historical Society Director of Collections/Curator Ellen Endslow states that "books they published by local authors decades ago about Chester County Historical Society’s museum collections are still purchased as references today.”

In the 1980s, Schiffer Publishing hired staff and built a warehouse on the farm. In 1992, Nancy and Peter moved the growing company to Atglen, just west of Parkesburg, where they built the "Book Farm." As Nancy explains, they "put every nickel they had into the place" which included an old farmhouse, offices, and a warehouse.

The business continued to expand but the family and company experienced tragedy in 2008, when Peter died suddenly from a heart attack.  Immediately after the loss, the family decided to continue building the company. As Peter and Nancy's son Pete recalls today, "father's least favorite word in the world was 'delay' so we picked up the company and forged ahead. "

Pete, who heads the company today, grew up working in the business. He helped pack up books after finishing his homework, experienced business-oriented family vacations, and befriended authors who were guests around the dinner table. After running separate businesses in Virginia, Pete returned to the family business in 2005. He assumed the role of Publisher immediately following the loss of his father.

Now, Schiffer Publishing has grown to a global company, publishing 300 new books a year and 5,000 total titles in hundreds of different categories. They have acquired several companies to expand their reach and have sales teams in every continent but Antarctica. Their books now include a wide array of topics, including children's' activities and topics, craftsmanship, culinary arts, military history, art, regional history, crafts, photography, architecture and more.

In this digital age, Schiffer Publishing remains committed to, according to Pete, "making a better book." All the while, the company has remained family-oriented with its roots based firmly in Chester County where its team members work at the Atglen facility.

The Chester County Historical Society, which collaborated with the family in the company's  early years, continues to have many titles available for library research and in its gift shop. For more information about Schiffer Publishing, visit www.schifferbooks.com.

Caption (below): The Brass Book was published in 1978 by Schiffer Publishing.