Alvin J. Johnson entered into the business of publishing, previously as a book canvasser who sold maps and atlases for the well-known map and atlas publishers, A.J. & J.H. Colton. Johnson was introduced to the profitability of atlases and when he came to New York City in 1857, he began to support Colton in publishing. In 1859, Colton’s General Atlas was published and the next year he published the first edition of his own atlas, titled, Johnson’s New Illustrated (Steel Plate) Family Atlas, With Descriptions Geographical, Statistical and Historical. However, rather than a direct successor, Johnson became a competitor of the Colton firm, and the Family Atlas became a competitor to the atlases of both Colton and S.A. Mitchell & Son, the other prominent atlas publisher of the day.
The Johnson firm sold almost all of its atlases through door to door canvassers. Other major atlas publishers of the times, Colton and Mitchell, also sold their atlases by this method. The importance of this practice in terms of sales promotion was an effective strategy. Every “gentleman” was urged to have the best and most up-to-date atlas in his home and to convince them that the acquisition of the newest edition was necessary. This appeared to be a successful sales technique, and a supposition can be made that Johnson’s salesmen urged prior customers to buy new atlases rather than update.