Whitcoulls was founded in 1882 when George Tombs, a printer and bookbinder, and George Whitcombe, a publisher and bookseller, combined their businesses to create a national publishing company that would come to dominate the New Zealand book trade. Whitcombe & Tombs, as the company was first known, were publishers of educational books and their retail stores were meeting grounds for anyone wanting to educate themselves through the purchase of newspapers, magazines or books.

From its earliest days through to 1917, George Whitcombe's entrepreneurial approach saw rapid development and the company grew to become the largest educational publisher in the southern hemisphere.

In 1971, Whitcombe & Tombs merged with key competitor Coull Somerville Wilke - a major printing and manufacturing company that also had a specialised focus on commercial stationery and office supplies. As a result of this merger, Whitcombe & Tombs was renamed Whitcoulls in 1973. From this time onwards, the company slowly moved away from the publishing industry and began to focus more on retailing.