A Brief History of 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 early years.

A U.S. postage stamp, commemorating the Day Press

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 material.

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.

The Walden Font Co. is looking to further this proud tradition by offering the means for anyone to print authentic colonial-era documents. Please visit our Minuteman Printshop, a collection of fonts and images suitable for the design of broadsides, advertisements, forms, and other printed matter from the mid to late 18th century.

One Comment

  • Yama Ploskonka

    As mentioned in another comment, I am into the paper side of printing, but also into early printing. The information that you share about early printing in Mexico is different from what I had, but what I have is not very certain, seems like the same thing repeated many times. Would you care to contact me please at my address? I am particularly trying to figure out early papermaking in Spanish America. Solid evidence so far would indicate “none”… Thank you!