How deep are the historical roots of our concept of major depression (MD)? I showed previously that psychiatric textbooks published in 1900–1960 commonly described 18 characteristic depressive symptoms/signs that substantially but incompletely overlapped with the current DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) MD criteria. I here expand that inquiry to the key years of 1880–1900 during which our major diagnostic categories of manic-depressive illness (MDI) and dementia praecox were developed. I review the symptoms of depression/melancholia in 28 psychiatric textbooks and 8 other relevant documents from this period including monographs, reviews and the first portrayal of melancholia Kraepelin in 1883. Descriptions of melancholia in the late nineteenth and twentieth century textbooks closely resembled each other, both reporting a mean of 12.4 characteristic symptoms, and emphasizing core features of mood change and alterations in cognitive content and psychomotor behavior. The detailed monographs, reviews and the early description of Kraepelin were more thorough, reporting a mean of 16.6 of these characteristic symptoms. These nineteenth century texts often contained phenomenologically rich descriptions of changes in mood and cognition, loss of interest and anhedonia and emphasized several features not in DSM including changes in volition/motivation, posture/facial expression and derealization/depersonalization. In the early nineteenth century, melancholia was often defined primarily by delusions or as the initial phase of a unitary psychosis transitioning to mania and then dementia. By 1880, the concept of depression as an independent mood disorder with characteristic symptoms/signs and a good prognosis had stabilized. Kraepelin incorporated this syndrome into his diagnostic concept of MDI, changing its name to ‘Depressive States’, but did not alter its underlying nature or clinical description.