Recognized as the oldest door-to-door sales company in the United States, the Southwestern Company publishes Bibles and educational reference books that college students sell over summer vacation. The Reverend James R. Graves, a prominent Baptist minister, began publishing religious tracts as far back as the 1840s, and by 1855 he had founded the Southwestern Publishing House. The Tennessee Baptist was the company’s most popular publication and helped advertise other tracts.
Prior to the Civil War, Bibles had been printed in the North and shipped south. The stock of Bibles in the South, however, was depleted during the war. “The North has no monopoly on the Word of God,” Graves declared. In August 1861 the Southwestern Publishing House began to publish Bibles from stereotype plates smuggled from the North. The Bibles were pocket-sized and bound in hard covers.
This first venture, however, did not last long. Nashville fell to Union forces on February 24, 1862, and Graves, feeling vulnerable because of his stormy articles against the North, fled to Memphis. The company resumed publication of religious materials in 1867. During Reconstruction, a number of colleges and training institutions were established in the South, but jobs to earn money for school were hard to find. In 1868 Graves began to train young men as book agents to sell the company’s publications from door-to-door. Some young men sold the greater part of the year, while college students sold only during the summer months. Graves retired in 1871 and sold his interest in the company. The firm remained in Memphis until 1879 when it returned to Nashville. However, its marketing strategy has never changed, and its annual summer training program attracts thousands of eager student-sellers to Nashville.