The Press In the United States, Part 1

The following is a transcription (Part I of III) of an article by Lawrence Wroth in his “Notes for Bibliophiles column in the New York Herald Tribune, which ran 70 years ago.

The Press in the United States: An Ideal Tercentenary Exhibition
[August 13, 1939]

Many libraries have been putting on exhibitions this year to celebrate the tercentenary of the establishment of printing in the United States at Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1639. No library in existence has all the things needed to make a complete showing of first printings in each of the original colonies but it is possible to have a good deal of fun constructing imaginatively the best possible exhibition and, still in the realm of fancy, borrowing for it unique titles from their owners. Such an exhibition could be held anywhere the fancy suggests, but because of the association between the first Cambridge press and the “College,” we might plan to set it up in the Treasure Room of the Harvard College Library.

It is impossible, of course, to make such an exhibition perfect, even in dreams. There is no copy known, for example, of the very first thing printed by Stephen Day on his press in Cambridge, that is, the “Oath of a Free-man,” the celebrated formulary used by the Massachusetts government which, though a simple broadside, had implications of considerable importance in the political life of the country. The earliest printed form known to us at present of the “Oath of a Free-man” appears in a pamphlet of London, 1647, by John Child, entitled “New-England’s Jonas cast up at London.”

The second thing printed by the Cambridge Press was an almanac of which also no copy is known to be in existence today. Its third issue, the earliest of which there exists a known copy, has the distinction of being regarded as the first book printed in the United States. This was the “Whole Booke of Psalmes,” translated from the Hebrew by a committee of Massachusetts divines and printed in Cambridge in the year 1640. Though one of the most valuable of all books it is not by any means the rarest. Seven public libraries in the United States and England and three private individuals in the United States would be able to contribute eleven copies in varying states of completeness to our ideal exhibition. Without doubt the best copy to display as our beginning entry would be the perfect John Carter Brown Library copy, which first belonged to Richard Mather, one of the translators, and the editor of the volume. Another production of the Cambridge Press which would find place in this exhibition would be a “Declaration of Former Passages and Proceedings betwixt the English and the Narrowgansets,” a piece known more popularly as the “Narragansett Declaration,” and sometimes characterized as the first historical writing to proceed from the American press.

Another Cambridge book of special significance is the “Book of the General Lawes and Libertyes of the Massachusets” of the year 1648. That cornerstone of the structure of American legal and constitutional publication could be displayed only if the Huntington Library were able to lend its unique copy. John Eliot’s translation of the Bible into the Indian language, Cambridge, 1663, marks the high point of the New England effort to Christianize the Indians. Copies of that and of the “Platform of Church Discipline” of 1649 could be borrowed from a good many public and private collections.

When the Cambridge Press went out of existence in 1692 a printing house had already been operating in near-by Boston for seventeen years. Increase Mather’s “Wicked Man’s Portion,” printed in Boston, by John Foster in 1675, is said to be the earliest issue of the press in a city that ranked as the most distinguished publishing center of the country throughout the greater part of the Colonial period. In addition to this book our exhibition would have to show as an important publication of the early Boston press, William Hubbard’s “Narrative of the Troubles with the Indians.” The presence in this volume of a woodcut map of New England made by John Foster, the printer, gives it consequence as the first illustrated book of the United States.
The dissemination of printing in the United States was by no means regular and orderly in its geographical progress. The establishment of the press in Boston in 1675 was succeeded by the setting up of a press in Jamestown, Virginia, by William Nuthead in 1682. Unfortunately Nuthead was prohibited the exercise of his craft after he had run off a few trial sheets of the Assembly Proceedings. No copies of these are known to exist, and the press of Virginia does not find representation in our exhibition until nearly fifty years later. But the Jamestown printer, William Nuthead, removed to Maryland and established himself as a printer in St. Mary’s City. The earliest known product of the Maryland press, a blank form, was printed sometime before August, 1685, and would have to be procured from the Land Office at Annapolis, Maryland.
In order to exhibit an item from the Nuthead Press of greater interest than its legal forms, it would be necessary to borrow from the Public Record Office, London, the only known copy of an important broadside printed by William Nuthead in 1689, entitled “The Address of the Representatives of their Majestyes Protestant Subjects in the Province of Maryland.” The Nuthead Press was succeeded by the press of Thomas Reading, who in 1700 published the first Maryland book of collected laws, the earliest work of the sort printed outside Massachusetts, known today by the unique and imperfect copy in the Library of Congress. Reading was followed in Annapolis by the well remembered printer William Parks, afterward established in Williamsburg; and by Jonas Green, whose editions of Bacon’s “Laws of Maryland,” published in Annapolis, in 1765, is one of the handsomest and most elaborate publications of the Colonial printing house.

The press in Pennsylvania was begun in Dec., 1685, with the printing of William Bradford’s “Kalendarium Pennsilvaniense,” an almanac which could best be shown in the exhibition by borrowing two copies, that one owned by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the variant in the private library of Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach, of Philadelphia and New York. The press in Pennsylvania held the premier position among Colonial presses throughout the second half of the eighteenth century.

No exhibition of American printing would be adequate without a representation of the work of Benjamin Franklin. Every one would expect to see displayed a copy of his “Cato Major” of 1744, and since the Historical Society of Pennsylvania has shown by a recent publication the splendid typographical qualities of his Indian treaties it would be necessary to put in a few specimens of those important and handsomely printed documents. An excellent example of the group would be the “Minutes of Conferences, held with the Indians at Harris’s Ferry,” published by Franklin & Hall in 1757.

It might have been said of William Bradford by his contemporaries that he had the unworldly quality of choosing troublesome friends and remaining loyal to them. Such a comment would arise from the fact that Bradford supported George Keith, the rebel Quaker, in his attacks upon the Pennsylvania ruling organization, and so got into trouble with the government. The feeling of the authorities was so strong against him that when he was released from prison he found it desirable to remove himself to New York, where, in 1693, he established the first press in the small town later to become the metropolis of the country. Because of the difficulty of deciding what was the first issue of Bradford’s New York press it would be necessary to display two books in our exhibition. One of these would be a copy of “New England’s Spirit of Persecution Transmitted to Pennsilvania . . . in the Tryal of Peter Boss, George Keith, Thomas Budd and William Bradford,” a narrative largely prepared by George Keith and today found in several American collections, and “A Paraphrastical Exposition on a Letter from a Gentleman in Philadelphia to his Friend in Boston,” a poem by John Phillips directed against Samuel Jennings, who had presided at the Bradford trial. It would be necessary to draw upon the private collection of Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach for the only copy of “Paraphrastical Exposition” known today.

Among the more notable successors to Bradford in New York were John Peter Zenger, whose trial for libel in 1735 was an important incident in the long struggle for the liberty of the press; James Parker, James Rivington and Hugh Gaine. From Zenger’s list of publications one would display his “Charter of the City of New York,” 1735, and from Parker’s the “Charter of the College of New-York in America,” as representing works of typographical excellence as well as historical importance.

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