On Printing in America
When we think of the history of printing in
America today, we are most likely to place the starting point with Ben Franklin
and some of the other great American printers of the 18th century. In fact, as
early as fifty years after its invention, the printed word had become an
integral part of Western culture, and wherever European discoverers ventured, a
printing press was sure to follow.
Thus the first American-printed book was
issued in Mexico in 1536: By order of the Spanish Viceroy Mendoza, Jesuit
missionaries printed the "Escala espiritual de San Juan Climaco".
We have no tangible evidence of this little volume, no copies appear to have
survived the tides of time. The second printing project fared only slightly
better: Just four single leaves of the "Manual de Adultos" from
1540 have come down to us. Later editions survive in greater quantities, showing
us that the printing industry in the Spanish colonies flourished after those
Likewise, one should think that the Pilgrim
fathers had other things on their minds than printing, mainly their survival,
but as early as 1638 a printing press was established in Cambridge,
Massachusetts Bay Colony, to provide reading material for the spiritual
edification of the colonists. The Rev. Jesse Glover and a number of Dutch
gentlemen jointly contributed "towards furnishing of a printing-press with
letters, forty-nine pounds and something more". The press was run by Mr.
Stephen Day, his first publication was the Bay
Psalm Book of 1640. While leaden types were still imported from the mother country
well into the 18th century, a paper mill was established in Germantown,
Pennsylvania as early as 1690, which illustrates the high demand for printed
William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania,
brought a master printer by the name of William Bradford to Philadelphia.
Bradford produced several religious publications and a small number of other
printed material, but he soon found that he could not run a profitable business
under the oppressive moral code that ruled Penn’s colony; it prevented him
from printing even the most trivial news. In 1725, Bradford moved to New York
and established the New York Gazette, the first newspaper in that city
and one of the first in New England.
Newspapers were a vital part of colonial life.
In a society where communication between the 13 colonies, and even between
towns, was discouraged, they provided the only means of spreading news other
than by mere hearsay. This importance was recognized during the years preceding
the War of Independence: both Colonists and British rulers employed the press to
spread heated propaganda among the people. The newspapers announced the
Declaration of Independence as well as Lord Cornwallis’ surrender. They were
and are the forum for political discussion in our democracy - black and white
evidence of the importance of free speech.
An interesting aspect of Colonial American
printing is the uniformity of the typefaces used. Virtually every printer seems
to have used the same exact type. This goes so far that, unless the piece in
question is printed in one of these few faces, we do not consider it "the
real thing". To find the reason for this lack of variety, we have to go
back in history. The place is England, the year, 1637. The Star Chamber just
decreed that "there shall be four founders of letters for printing and no
more". There are many reasons for this measure, most prominently the fear
that too much printed material might educate the masses beyond the comfort level
of the ruling class. In any case, the new restriction reduced the number of
available type styles to a small, mediocre selection. While some printers
resorted to importing superior type from Holland, many others looked for a
"homegrown" solution to the problem. They found it in William Caslon
(1692 - 1766), a renowned engraver and tool maker. Caslon was commissioned to
cut punches for a number of distinguished presses in London. He based his new
designs on the Dutch fonts of the time and achieved such marvelous results that
his type faces quickly became the standard for all kinds of printing, from fine
books to the lowest of newspapers. Especially printers in the American colonies
used the new type so extensively that no piece of 18th century American printing
looks "real" to us unless it is printed in Caslon.