from Garrison Keillor's Writers Almanac:
It was on this day in 1850 that Nathaniel Hawthorne's masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter, was published. He was living at a time when there was almost no such thing as American literature, in part because the American publishing industry was so behind the times. In order to publish a book, a single printer would edit the manuscript, set the type, operate the printing press, bind the pages into books, and then sell them. It was remarkably inefficient, and so it was almost impossible to produce a best-seller, since so few copies were available to be sold.
But by 1850, books were being printed by machines. Long, continuous sheets of paper were fed into steam-powered printing presses, and factories of workers folded, pressed, and stitched the pages into books. The Scarlet Letter became the first great American novel in part because it was the first great American novel that could reach a large audience. A total of 2,500 copies of The Scarlet Letter were published on March 16, and they sold out within 10 days.