In 1888, the San Francisco-based publisher James Dewing (ca. 1846-1902) launched a project to provide the most comprehensive visual coverage of the Far West yet available: Picturesque California and the Region West of the Rocky Mountains, from Alaska to Mexico. Edited by John Muir, who wrote much of its text, it was the first major illustrated work on the West produced primarily by westerners. Sold by subscription, the work first appeared serially in thirty parts, with more than eight hundred images produced by an array of printing technologies.
James Dewing, originally from Connecticut, had joined his brother in San Francisco after serving in the Union Army. By 1871 he was a partner in Francis Dewing and Company’s publishing firm. After Francis’s death in 1883, James Dewing operated a bookstore and publishing office and with other family members manufactured and sold pianos, organs, and school furniture. In January 1887 the J. Dewing Company was incorporated with a capital stock of $250,000, presumably from investors interested in Picturesque California’s publication. By 1888 the firm had established a New York office, no doubt to help promote the book.
Little is known about Picturesque California’s early genesis. But clearly, Dewing was well enough connected to engage John Muir (1838-1914) as editor and principal writer. Muir was not yet the household name he is today or even the nation’s premier conservationist (he would found the Sierra Club in 1892). Still, he was well known for his expertise on the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Yosemite Valley, which President Lincoln had made a state park in 1864. An early review of Picturesque California described him as "the man of all others who has most lived with and expressed nature in California." His articles expounding his theories on Yosemite’s formation and describing the glaciers he had found in the Sierras had appeared in the San Francisco periodical the Overland Monthly from 1872 and in Harper’s and Scribner’s, the nation’s leading illustrated monthly magazines, from 1875 through the 1880s. Dewing’s invitation to edit Picturesque California came at an opportune time for Muir. As a father and principal breadwinner, exploring the Sierras and California’s other natural wonders had become impractical for him. He accepted the commission and reworked some of his earlier articles in preparing his contributions.