Adam Willis Wagnalls

From New World Encyclopedia

Adam Willis Wagnalls (September 24, 1843 – September 3, 1924) was an American publisher who was the co-founder of the Funk & Wagnalls Company established in 1877. The company became known for its reference works like the world famous Funk & Wagnalls Dictionary and an encyclopedia whose content became a part of the Encarta digital encyclopedia more than a century later.

Both founders were Lutheran ministers. During its early years the company published periodicals and religious books for the clergy. Drs. Funk and Wagnall, classmates at Wittenberg College, Ohio, started business in 1876 in Manhattan, publishing books, pictures, and the Homiletic Review.

The publication of The Literary Digest in 1890 marked a change for the firm to a publisher of general reference dictionaries and encyclopedias. Norman Rockwell paintings served as covers for The Literary Digest until 1938, when it merged with the Review of Reviews, only to fail soon after.

Early life

Adam Willis Wagnalls was born in Lithopolis, Fairfield County, Ohio, September 24, 1843, to Christopher C. and Elizabeth (Schneider) Wagnalls. He was educated in public schools and at Wittenberg College, Springfield, Ohio. He graduated in 1866 with an A. B. degree and later received the degree of Litt. D. In 1915 he earned an LL. D. degree. He married Anna Willis of Lithopolis, June 4, 1868.

Wagnalls studied for the ministry at Wittenberg College and later served as Lutheran pastor of the First English Lutheran Church in Kansas City, Missouri, and city clerk in Atchison, Kansas, before joining his college classmate, the American publisher and editor Isaac Kauffman Funk, in New York City, to form a partnership that in 1891 became the Funk & Wagnalls Company. The firm published A Standard Dictionary of the English Language (1894), the periodical The Literary Digest (founded in 1890), Jewish Encyclopedia (12 volumes, 1901-1906), and an encyclopedia from which the Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia is derived.

Publishing history

Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of the English Language was the first English dictionary that gave definitions of words with the most current definition first and the oldest definition last, rather than the other way around. At the time, dictionaries were thought of as historical records of the language. Funk and Wagnalls made dictionaries practical.

Isaac Kaufmann Funk founded the business in 1876 as I.K. Funk & Company. The firm's first publication was the Metropolitan Pulpit. In 1877, Adam Willis Wagnalls, one of Funk's classmates at Wittenberg College, now Wittenberg University, joined the firm as a partner. The two changed the name of the firm to Funk & Wagnalls Company in 1890.

Prior to 1890, they published only religious-oriented works. The publication of The Literary Digest in 1890 marked a change for the firm to a publisher of general reference dictionaries and encyclopedias. The firm followed in 1894 with its most memorable publication, The Standard Dictionary of the English Language, 1912 (OCLC 19715240), saw the publication of the Funk & Wagnalls Standard Encyclopedia (OCLC 1802064).

A 16-year-old Catholic boy, Robert Cuddihy, became their only employee. When the Digest started in 1890 Cuddihy was told to "go ahead and make it go." Cuddihy not only made it go but made it far and away the most successful current events magazine in the U. S.[1]


The rights to publish the encyclopedia were obtained by the Unicorn Press, later known as the Standard Reference Work Publishing Co. By 1953 that firm began to sell the encyclopedia and other educational materials through supermarket continuity promotions, enjoying considerable success with this marketing technique.

In 1965 Funk & Wagnalls Co. was purchased by the Reader’s Digest Association.

The company (by this time Funk & Wagnalls, Inc.) was acquired by Dun & Bradstreet in 1971. It retained Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia, but all other properties were transferred to other publishers in later corporate mergers. The firm was purchased by its senior officers in 1984. They sold it to the Field Corporation in 1988. In 1991 it was sold to K-III Holdings, Inc.; and in 1993 it acquired The World Almanac and related properties. In 1996 the corporate name was changed to K-III Reference Corp., which acquired Facts on File News Services. In 1997 the corporate name was changed to PRIMEDIA Reference Inc., and the company acquired Gareth Stevens, Inc., a publisher of juvenile books for schools and libraries. In 1999 the company was sold to Ripplewood Holdings L.L.C. and was renamed World Almanac Education Group, Inc. In the 1990s electronic versions of Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia, The World Almanac, Facts on File World News Digest, and related publications were available, on disk and online, both for consumers and for schools, libraries, and businesses.

The Wagnalls Memorial located in Lithopolis, Ohio

Wagnalls died on September 3, 1924, in Northport, New York and is buried at Lithopolis Cemetery in Ohio. Upon his wife's death in 1914, Mabel, their only child, established and gifted to Lithopolis and Bloom Township the Wagnalls Memorial Library, and a few years later established the The Wagnalls Foundation. Mabel Wagnalls Jones designed and built The Wagnalls Memorial library and community center in 1925 to honor her parents. At her death in 1946, Mabel Wagnalls Jones left the bulk of her estate to The Memorial.[2]


  1. The Press: Digest Overhauled Retrieved July 24, 2018.
  2. A Historical Tour of the Wagnalls Memorial Retrieved July 24, 2018.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Funk, Isaac Kaufmann, and Adam Willis Wagnalls. Funk & Wagnalls Standard Universal Dictionary of the English Language. Garden City Publishing, 1941. ISBN 978-0411153090
  • Huber, Donald L. Producers of Big Things: Funk and Wagnalls. Timeline 16 (5). Columbus, OH: Ohio Historical Society, 1999. OCLC 55218023
  • Vizetelly, Frank H. The Wagnalls Memorial: Address ... at dedication of the ... Anna Willis and Adam Willis Wagnalls Memorial, Lithopolis, Ohio, May 30, 1925. Lithopolis: [n. pub.], 1925. OCLC 33412329

External Links

All links retrieved June 15, 2023.


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