Skip to Main Content

Hawthorne at Salem

Literary Works

The Custom House Chapter of The Scarlet Letter: Introduction

Material prepared by:
Prepared by Terri Whitney, Department of English
North Shore Community College, Danvers, MA


Illustration of the Custom House from early edition of <I>The Scarlet Letter</I>
Illustration of the Custom House from early edition of The Scarlet Letter (courtesy of James R. Osgood and Co.)

This section of the site focuses on the "Custom-House" sketch, the first chapter of Hawthorne's romance, The Scarlet Letter, which was written just after he was fired from the Salem Custom House in 1849. Ticknor, Reed, and Fields published the novel in 1850 and issued 2,500 copies in the first printing. The Scarlet Letter was not a best seller, but the publicity surrounding Hawthorne's dismissal as surveyor at the Custom House was the equivalent of an interview on the "Today" show and boosted initial sales.

The original manuscript of The Scarlet Letter is lost, and house printing style was imposed on the 1850 edition, so that version varies occasionally from Hawthorne's spelling, capitalization, and word division in manuscripts of the same time period. As a result, we have chosen to use the Ohio State University Centenary Edition, the one preferred by most scholars, and have purchased the rights from Ohio State University Press.

We hope that the hyperlinked version of "The Custom-House" sketch in this section of the site, along with the commentary in the Scholars' Forum, will assist students in understanding the integral relationship between this introductory chapter and the story which follows. Not all publishers in the past have had such an understanding; in some editions "The Custom-House" chapter is omitted altogether. The rationale for this decapitation was that this chapter was merely Hawthorne taking revenge on his political enemies and had no relevance to the story of Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale, Roger Chillingworth, and Pearl and its themes of moral and artistic freedom. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

The Custom House Sketch: Fact and Fantasy

Material prepared by:
Prepared by Terri Whitney, Department of English
North Shore Community College, Danvers, MA


Hawthorne's Office in the Salem Custom House (photography by Aaron Toleos)

The "Custom-House " sketch is a blend of fact and fantasy. In it Hawthorne does refer to real people, places, and events in Salem, and he also uses this first chapter to introduce the fictional Hester Prynne who wears the scarlet letter that the narrator finds in the Custom House attic. However, this story of the alienated surveyor and his surroundings is linked in more profound ways to the story of the isolated Hester. We hope that the links will provide a historical context for the work and also help readers perceive the relationships between the first chapter and the rest of the novel.

This section of the Website provides the full text of the first chapter of the Ohio State University Press Centenary Edition of The Scarlet Letter, also known as The Custom-House Sketch.