First Printing Press in North America

Stephen Day, assisted by his son Matthew, established North America’s first printing press in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and used it to publish various works, including the first book in the British colonies.

Summary of Event

The New World’s first printing presses were established in the Spanish colonies of Central and South America during the sixteenth century. The first printing press in North America belonged to British settlers in New England during the mid-seventeenth century. A Puritan clergyman, Jose Glover Glover, Jose (also called Joss, Josse, or Joseph), purchased a printing press in England for £20, along with paper and type, and brought all this aboard the John of London, a ship bound for Boston, in the summer of 1638. Glover had been rector of a church in Sutton, County Surrey, but he found government restrictions on his religion burdensome, and he saw the press as a way of spreading his religious views in the New World. [kw]First Printing Press in North America (1638)
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Before embarking, Glover signed a contract with Stephen Day, Day, Stephen a locksmith, who agreed to work for Glover in America for two years. Both men traveled with their families: Glover brought his wife and five children, and Day brought his wife and two sons. Unfortunately, Reverend Glover died of a fever during the transatlantic voyage, and his wife became the owner of the printing equipment. The widow chose to settle in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and set up the printing press near the newly founded Harvard College. She left the work of running the business to Stephen Day, and Day relied on the skills of his eighteen-year-old son, Matthew Day, Day, Matthew who had been apprenticed to a printer in England.

Their first publication, which was the first printed material created in the British colonies, was “The Oath of a Free-Man” (c. 1638-1639), a half-sheet containing the words of the oath required by the colony of those who wished to become legal citizens. (Only men twenty years of age and older who had owned their homes for six months or longer were eligible to take the oath.) Not one of these broadsheets has survived, and scholars learned of them only through later accounts. For the same reason, it is uncertain whether the freeman’s oath was printed late in 1638 or early in 1639.

The second publication of the Cambridge press (sometimes called, despite its modest length, the first English book printed in America) was An Almanack for 1639: Calculated for New England by Mr. William Pierce, Mariner
Almanack for 1639, An (1639). This and the other almanacs the Days published from 1640 to 1645 were very successful, because they provided New Englanders with helpful information on tides, weather, and important astronomical data.

Many scholars consider the third publication of the Days to be English America’s first true book because of its substantial length (296 pages), the number of copies printed (seventeen hundred, of which eleven have survived), and its frequent reprints. The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre (1640; better known as the Bay Psalm Book
Bay Psalm Book ) was the work of some of the chief clergymen of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, including Richard Mather Mather, Richard and Thomas Weld Weld, Thomas . Though the book was poorly printed—with many typographical errors, eccentric spellings, and irregular spacings—it filled a need, since many Puritan divines used psalms for communal singing in their churches. The clergy of the colony praised the translators’ faithfulness to the Hebrew originals.

In 1641, the Days were responsible for printing the Body of Liberties Body of Liberties , a code of laws Law;Massachusetts Bay Colony that for many years served as the foundation of legislation in Massachusetts Bay Colony. The code has the dubious distinction of containing the first legal recognition of the institution of slavery in the colony. In this same year, Glover’s widow married Henry Dunster, Dunster, Henry who was then president of Harvard College, and Dunster thereby gained control of the press. Harvard’s first commencement was held in 1642, and the press published the names of the first class; it also published material for several succeeding commencements. After his wife’s death in 1643, Dunster retained the Days to run the printing business.

Later publications included a spelling book, catechisms, and collections of sermons. The last publication under Stephen Day’s directorship was a 1646 almanac compiled by Samuel Danforth. Friction between Day and Dunster caused the former to leave the Cambridge press, but his son Matthew continued to manage the press until his tragically early death in 1649. After Matthew Day’s death, Dunster asked Samuel Green, Green, Samuel a former militia captain, to run the business, despite his lack of printing experience. For the next forty-three years, Green oversaw the publication of many books of religious, academic, and legal importance. For example, The Platform of Church-Discipline
Platform of Church-Discipline, The (1649), published under Green’s direction, has been called the cornerstone of American Congregationalism.

Green’s most productive period was from 1660 to 1674, and his most significant publication during this time was John Eliot’s Eliot, John Bible Bible;Indian for Native Americans. Native Americans;Bible for For nearly thirty years, Eliot had been working on the conversion of Native Americans, and he had mastered the Algonquian language. To aid in his missionary activities, he translated the Bible into Algonquian, and he applied to the London Society for the Propagation of the Gospel among the Indians of New England for financial help, since projected sales would not cover printing expenses. He also needed specialized type, such as a ligatured double “o.” Samuel Green also needed help in completing this monumental printing task, and he hired Marmaduke Johnson, Johnson, Marmaduke a skilled journeyman printer. Native American converts, provided by Eliot, also assisted in the printing of fifteen hundred copies of this twelve-hundred-page book, commonly called the Indian Bible but also known as the Eliot Bible. Contemporaries saw the Eliot Bible as the press’s most notable production, but some revisionist scholars have interpreted this Bible as “an instrument of domination” over Native Americans already demoralized by conquest and disease. Christianity;Native Americans and
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North America’s first printing press became the locus for training several colonial printers who would go on to spread printing technology through the colonies. Through books, pamphlets, and broadsides, the Cambridge printers contributed to the spread of information, both secular and religious, to an increasingly literate populace. After his work in Cambridge, Marmaduke Johnson received permission from colonial government officials to set up a printing business in Boston, which was purchased by John Foster, Foster, John a Harvard graduate who became Boston’s first printer.

Boston was also the site of America’s first newspaper Newspapers;America . Printing spread to the Middle Colonies when William Bradford, Bradford, William a London Quaker, set up the first press in Philadelphia in 1685. He later established a printing business in New York City. The seventeenth century growth of the printing industry in New England New England;printing industry and and the Middle Colonies prepared the way for the spectacular and influential expansion of publishing in the eighteenth century. A good example of publishing’s success during this time was the work of Benjamin Franklin. His publication of Poor Richard’s Almanack in editions of more than ten thousand copies from 1732 to 1757 made him financially independent enough to pursue his political interests. By 1775, fifty printers were active in the American colonies, and some scholars have compared the role that printing played in the American War of Independence to the role that it had earlier played in the Protestant Reformation in Europe.

Further Reading

  • Armory, Hugh, and David D. Hall, eds. The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World. Vol. 1 in A History of the Book in America. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. This work, whose theme is the connection between the book trade in the New and Old Worlds, traces the emergence of the book industry in early America.
  • Bigmore, E. C., and C. W. H. Wyman. A Bibliography of Printing. Reprint. New Castle, Del.: Oak Knoll Press, 2001. A modern reprint of a classic work originally published in three volumes from 1880 to 1886. This new edition, illustrated with woodcuts, contains a comprehensive index.
  • Clement, Richard W. The Book in America with Images from the Library of Congress. Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum, 1996. Traces the history of the book in both colonial America and the United States, making excellent use of rare images from the Library of Congress. Chapter 1 deals with colonial book production from 1638 to 1783. Section on further reading and an index.
  • Steinberg, S. H. Five Hundred Years of Printing. Reprint. New Castle, Del.: Oak Knoll Press, 1996. This standard work, long available as a Pelican Book (1956), has been revised and copiously illustrated. Select bibliography and index.
  • Winship, George Parker. The Cambridge Press, 1638-1692: A Reexamination of the Evidence Concerning “The Bay Psalm Book” and the Eliot Indian Bible. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1945. This narrative history of how printing arrived, spread, and flourished in seventeenth century Massachusetts also includes an analysis of the development, variety, and quality of early American printing. Selective bibliography and index.

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