From one colonial printer to another


For those who love the history of printing, here is a shiny nugget indeed. A LONG letter from Isaiah Thomas (1749-1831), scholar-printer of Worcester, Mass. to his colleague, John Carter (1745-1814), who had apprenticed to Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia and later became a printer in Providence. The date is April 5, 1800. The subjects are friendship, retirement, and succession:

My good friend:

I am favored with yours of the 29th ult.–True as you observe, “our correspondence has suffered a long Embargo:- I am happy you have taken it off, but regret my want of energy to make previous attempt. I had often thought of writing to you, and many times felt a strong desire of visiting you–but the troubles and cares of life prevent us from doing many things which would afford us real pleasure–I assure you I will not be deficient, now our correspondence is renewed, in continuing it.
An old friend, or acquaintance, especially at the period of life to which we are arrived, seems more precious to us, than those of recent standing–the cause is obvious –the mind looks back to past times–it points to our first knowledge of each other, and measures the circuit of our acquaintance. Every old friend we lose enhances the value of those who remain, and causes us to reflect, how few of those whom we were familiar with thirty years ago, are now among the living–alas! They are chiefly numbered with the dead! And soon we must follow them. I have often had that passage from the sacred Book most forcibly brought to my mind–“The Fathers! –Where are they?–and, the Prophets!–Do they live forever?”
I do not mean, my friend, to give you a gloomy sermon in return for your pleasant and enlivening letter. The ideas arose and I could not reject expressing them, or reflecting that all of our profession in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island, who were doing business when we began, are now at rest from their labors–none alive but our friend Mr. Goddard, of course we are the three oldest printers in the three states just mentioned. I am much pleased with your promise of visiting me with him. Let us meet, and once more take each other by the hand–it may add to our felicity–it most assuredly will to mine. Present him with the “homage of my respects,” for most sincerely do I give it. Tell him I rely on your visit–let it be soon, and give me notice a few days previously to your setting off for Worcester, that I may not be from home, and lose the pleasure I now anticipate. We will go together to Brother Mycall’s, where we may be assured of being electrified should we need and wish it. Mrs. T. presents her respects–she will be happy to see you and our friend Mr. G.
You have had, as you observe, “a pretty long printing career,” and I think with you, it is time for you to retire–i.e., to shift the ground, and free yourself from confinement to business, especially that part of it which respects a periodical publication. But you must prepare yourself for this change. Old habits, good or bad, are not easily thrown aside. Before you quit your present business have a plan fixed for the employment of your time, and then immediately from the old to the new love. Men who have been in active business for a number of years, suffer more from such a change as you contemplate than they are aware of, unless they duly prepare for it. Nothing, you know, is more deceptive than the imagination; we fancy a thousand pleasing scenes await us when we quit the cares and buzz of business; but we realize but few of them. When we are advanced far in life, we have not time to meet the gradual progress of preparation for the enjoyment of other scenes than those we have been long accustomed to, and this preparation seems essentially necessary to a satisfactory enjoyment of an essential change in our mode of life. We must be fitted for whatever state we wish to be in, if we expect to be happy in that state.
About six years since, I gave up the whole of my printing business, in this place, to my son. I was tired of it, and thought of many things I could substitute from which I should divine more satisfaction–the difficulty lay in setting about them–I did not know how to begin. In fact, I meet with so many difficulties, which I had not foreseen, that most of my ideal pleasures are yet to come, if they come at all.
On the whole, my good friend, I would advise you, to retain some control over your business–get a good partner if you can; let him take the care off your hands, and that part of the management particularly that is most irksome to you. You can then employ yourself as your inclinations may lead you, can go only as you please to your office, and amuse yourself there or abroad as your feelings may dictate.
I write hastily, and find I have not expressed my ideas clearly. I am too lazy to arrange them better on paper at this time, or to rewrite and correct; but when I have the pleasure of seeing you, we can say more to the purpose, on this subject, in one hour, than I should write in a day.
Mr. Manning, I should think, would be a good man for your purpose–I do not know the state of his present business, but I will enquire if you wish it–or do anything in my power to serve you respecting the object you have now in view.
It is difficult to obtain young men of “ability and integrity” who have been bred to our business–I believe, however, there are some at Boston that might answer your purpose. Shall I enquire?
I wish you had been a little more particular in your enquiry, “What is the present need for foraging in the printing business ‘for’ others?”–Do you mean as partners?–or, to take your materials, and you to furnish a certain quantum of work yearly, they to find all the labor and consumable articles, and do the work for you at a certain rate? The latter is the mode in which T. & A. have work done in their office at Boston.
I hope by this time, you can walk without “limping.” Be not discouraged–we are all subject to perverseness of some kind or other. We, the Federalists of this state, hobble a little today from the result of the election yesterday–but I doubt not that we shall bear it with fortitude.
Adieu!–let me hear again from you. With much esteem, your friend and humble servt., Isaiah Thomas.

3 thoughts on “From one colonial printer to another

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