Early printing in the New World…

September 10, 2009 by  
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Another book I find very useful, although out of print, is “Printing In The Americas” by John Clyde Oswald, 1937. From time to time I will print excerpts from it which hopefully will be of interest to collectors, including the following which touches upon the very earliest years of printing in the “new world”.

printing_in_the_americas_ii“Printing in the English colonies began during the first half of the 17th century, at which time the art was at a low ebb in Europe, and it is therefore not surprising that the printers who came to the western shore of the Atlantic Ocean were not of outstanding ability; they were but representative of the class from which they sprang.

The first person to print in what is now the United States was a boy 18 years of age, upon whose immature shoulders had unexpectedly been thrown a heavy burden of responsibility. This boy, Matthew Daye (later in life he dropped the final ‘e’), began to print in a newly built house on the bleak shore of New England, on the edge of the forbidding wilderness that surrounded it on all sides but that which faced the sea. The year was 1638, just 18 years after the Pilgrims landed.

A new nation was in the making, in which life eventually came to embrace everything worth while, but in which in the beginning, as was to be expected, artistic accomplishment & progress were almost wholly absent. The settlers were too much occupied with the immediate necessity of clearing away the forests, harnessing the water power, building homes, founding towns and setting up local governments, to be able to find time to devote to the refinements of daily living. The primal wants had first to be satisfied. Then came the Revolutionary War, with its strain upon their resources, and later the need of facing and solving the world problems that accompanied the birth of the new nation.

The scarcity of great printers in Europe during the 17th century is to be ascribed to the fact that printing, controlled by Church and State, had ceased to be a means of art expression and had become merely a vehicle for the transmission of information (and misinformation). In England the number of printers and type founders was limited, and they were licensed and operated under strict surveillance. Restrictive measures of a somewhat similar nature were enforced in other countries.

The ruling powers endeavored to stretch a restraining army across the Atlantic to the colonies newly planted there, and they were at first partly successful because they were represented by governors subservient to their whims. the oft-quoted remark of Sir William Berkeley, governor of Virginia, will be recalled:

But, I thank God, there are no free schools nor printing, and I hope we shall not have these hundreds years; for learning has brought disobedience, and heresy, and sects into the world, and printing has divulged them, and libels against the best government. God keep us from both.”

King James II, on ascending the English throne in 1685, sent this instruction to Governor Dongan, in New York:

“And for as much as great inconvenience may arise by the liberty of printing within our province of New York; you are to provide by all necessary Orders that noe person keep any press for printing, nor that any book pamphlet or other matters whatsoever bee printed without your special leave & license first obtained.”

For 40 years thereafter this paragraph appeared in the instructions to colonial governors. Great was the respect paid by the common people of Europe to constituted authority. The bowed head and bended knee were therefore attitude familiar to the colonists; but contact with this constituted authority came to them only through the local governors and their minions, and often the closeness of the contact disclosed the fact that the supposed gods were in reality made of clay. Respect, reverence even, might for a time be publicly shown for a governor in gold lace, who proved on acquaintance to be vain, shallow, and incompetent, but it could not be privately felt, and under such circumstances the public showing was certain in time to come to an end.”

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