Alfred Smith Barnes learned the publishing trade while working for D. F. Robinson & Co., a publisher in Hartford, Connecticut. During this time, Barnes successfully published books aimed at the educational market including mathematic texts by Charles Davies and historical texts by Emma Willard, a joint venture between the three. In 1840, Barnes moved to Philadelphia, where he began building his own publishing company, which was finally established as A.S. Barnes & Co. in New York City in 1865.
A.S. Barnes published Joel Dorman Steele's Fourteen Weeks science book series beginning in 1867 and his Barnes Brief History of the United States in 1871. The company also published Watson's Readers, Davies' Arithmetic, Monteith's Geography and the National Series of Standard Science Books as well as textbooks under the "Library for Teachers" imprint, which includes one of its earliest best sellers, Clark's English Grammar. Additionally, Barnes occasionally published fiction, such as Joseph Lincoln's first novel, Cap'n Ernie, and trade magazines (Education Bulletin, National Teacher's Weekly, International Review) as well as manufacturing furniture for schools and selling classroom supplies.
A.S. Barnes & Co. was a family operation. Eventually, Barnes’ five sons, his brother and one nephew were connected to the firm, which became the leading publisher of textbooks in the United States. The founder’s son, Alfred C. Barnes, took over the business after the death of his father in 1888. In this time, Ripley Hitchcock became editor-in-chief, bringing with him a new regime, which published educational books edited by Margaret Sanger as well as her Woman's Home Library series in addition to the 17-volume Trail Makers series and New Barnes Writing Books.
In 1909, the company incorporated in order to provide fresh working capital, needed after acquiring another publishing firm. In 1917, a merger with Prang Co. was attempted, but abandoned after a few months. The company split up, with John Barnes Pratt acquiring the rights to the company name and much of the back catalog.
First editions from A.S. Barnes either state “First American Edition (year)” on the copyright page or the same date must appear on the title page as appears on the copyright page with no additional printings listed.