Category Archives: print culture

Spottee the Wonder Horse comes to Baltimore; or how I learned to love reading the newspaper

Baltimore Evening Post, 15 September 1807


Frequently in the course of my research people ask me what sort of sources I use when studying provincial print culture.  Most historians love a good primary source.  There is a secret thrill at discovering something, long buried in a dusty archive, which will change the way people understand an individual or event.  The discovery of a new set of sources can make a historian’s career and open up new fields of exploration.  Less glamorously, amazing historical knowledge can be gained by examining existing sources in new ways, and mining tiny pockets of information from scattered and diverse source material.

One of the problems of studying provincial print culture is that source material is often difficult to find.  Most of the surviving publisher’s archives come from the largest and most long-lived publishers: think John Murray, or Mathew Carey, or Longman and Co.  (Though these larger archives can contain an amazing amount of material relevant to provincial print culture.)  Very rarely do we find surviving archives for small printers and publishers in provincial towns. This is partially why so few have studied provincial print culture, and why so many are curious about my source material.

Simply put, provincial newspapers are one of my favorite, and most useful sources.  Provincial papers are multidimensional sources.  They can be used in a variety of ways and they provide information through their text, paratext, and materiality.  Newspapers carry a wealth of details about their printers and editors.  They can tell you about distribution routes, prices and subscribers as well as the political affiliations and business associations of their owners.  Readers can learn about the capital available to the printers, and the quality of their type and paper supply.  For scholars of print culture the importance of local newspapers extends beyond the information they convey on their pages.  Their simple existence tells a story about the local demand for print, making them one of the most valuable sources for the study of provincial print culture.

For scholars of any area, sitting down and reading longer runs of local papers can give unparalleled access to the life of a community.   The advertisements provide details of available goods and services.  Editorials highlight local concerns.  Even the foreign news can hint at the larger communication networks available to local readers.  Taken together these things begin to reveal the rhythm of local life.

Amidst the mundane details of everyday life, small gems can rekindle our fascination with history and keep us eagerly reading.  One of my favorite gems is the above advertisement.  Though of little direct significance, Spottee the horse reminds me of the joys of reading the newspaper, and how much it can tell us about provincial communities.


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The benefits of being a pirate, part II

Part I of this post briefly laid out a few of the benefits which arose from pirate publishing in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world.  Smaller formats and cheaper prices helped increase the distribution of printed material and the ideas within, and allowed readers to begin consuming greater quantities of texts.  These benefits were apparent to many contemporary individuals familiar with publishing practices, and are being verified by scholars like myself.  However, debates about publishing piracy took on new dimensions in America during the American Revolution.

Freedom of information became a critical issue during the American Revolution.  As Joe Adelman described, the fight for freedom of information took on revolutionary tones during the 1760s.  Not only was the circulation of information considered vital to the American war effort, but it was also seen as crucial to the development of a republican citizenry.  In order to be a virtuous citizen of the new republic, individuals needed to be informed.  This basic premise underpinned American understanding of the role of copyright.  Yes, American authors should be rewarded, but it was equally important to prevent information, i.e. publications, from being monopolized by copyright holders.  American authors were to be rewarded and nurtured with copyright protection, but citizens must have information, so copyright periods were kept short and all foreign texts were fair game for reprinters in America.  In practice, during the eighteenth century, American copyright was applied to only a small percentage of texts, even among those produced by American authors.  The economies of the book trades ensured that publishers were often better-off to risk being pirated than to spend the money to have a work copyrighted.

The American example emphasizes two important issues.  First, America’s founding father’s recognized that copyright had the potential to produce monopolies of information that were inimical to republican citizenship.  Secondly they recognized that copyright, at least in a limited form, was important for the encouragement of authors, and that some compromise was needed in both directions.  The United States was very late to join with other nations to extend copyright protections internationally, because that extension conflicted with the American beliefs (and established business practices).

So what lessons can we take from this example?  First, I think it is important to be aware that even the American government has not always seen piracy as an evil.  American beliefs about the necessity of an informed citizenry came with a price, namely ensuring that all citizens had access to the important information, even if that meant limiting the rights of copyright holders.  Secondly, seeing the benefits our eighteenth-century ancestors took from publishing piracy should prompt us to re-evaluate our current intellectual property system.  Even if we choose to continue enforcing copyright protection, we should also be looking for ways to increase access and distribution of ideas for the benefit of everyone.

Hopefully this little jaunt through eighteenth century piracy has provided some additional perspectives to the contemporary issues facing the world and has raised awareness of the long history of debates over piracy.

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The benefits of being a pirate, part I

A Copyright Will Protect You From Pirates - by Ioan Sameli - Licensed under a Creative Commons by-sa 2.0 license

A Copyright Will Protect You From Pirates – by Ioan Sameli – Licensed under a Creative Commons by-sa 2.0 license


It is not every day that the issues that are so central to my work on eighteenth century publishing are such flashpoints of contemporary debate. However this is exactly what is happening with the controversy over internet piracy and the pending SOPA legislation in the US. Here we have a timely opportunity to learn from the past. (Yeah for History!)  In the eighteenth century, piracy was the scourge of corporate entities and copyright holders, but many individuals and governments acknowledged that it also had benefits. Hopefully this activity will provide some food-for-thought and a bit of balance for these polarizing and high-stakes questions. I plan on focusing on piracy in the eighteenth century, but for a great road map to trace these developments over time, see Adrian Johns’ book Piracy: the intellectual property wars from Gutenberg to Gates.

First, we need a bit of definition of what publishing piracy was in the eighteenth century. In Britain copyright and trade courtesies protected texts.  Any unauthorized reprints were piracies. However in Ireland and America it was perfectly legal to reprint British texts, even if they were protected by copyright. It was only if these reprints were then imported into Britain that they became piracies.  In America, texts could be registered for copyright, first by state and later nationally, but this only protected American authors from American pirates. Copyright was a very local concept. This parallels current issues of internet piracy, where discrepancies between national copyright law and practices of use create opportunities for pirates to flourish.

Ireland was a unique case, not because they reprinted texts copyrighted elsewhere, most nations did this to some degree, but because even within Ireland there was no copyright regime for Irish texts. The Irish publishing industry became experts in producing quick and cheap reprints of British texts, both for their own market and for exporting to places like America.  In the eighteenth century Ireland stands as the premier example of pirate publishing.  Though these publications were legal in Ireland, these products were often transformed into piracies as they traveled around the Atlantic.

There were several benefits to these ‘pirate’ editions.  Richard Sher, in the Enlightenment and the Book, asserts that the Enlightenment traveled across the Atlantic on a wave of Irish reprints.   Without Irish pirates, the ideas of Scottish authors like Adam Smith would not have had the impacted that they did.  Pirate editions spread ideas by increasing distribution of books.  These editions created greater competition within the publishing world, and opened new markets for print.  Even the monopolistic London publishers were forced to change their practices to compete with Irish reprints for the American export market.  The greater availability and lower prices of books changed people’s reading habits.  Reading became more casual and commonplace, even before the great increases in literacy in the nineteenth century.

It could be argued that pirate publishers benefited everyone in the English-speaking Atlantic world, except possibly copyright holders (and there may even be an argument for them).

Despite the fact that eighteenth century Ireland was often touted as the ideal ‘Pirate Kingdom’, in the words of Adrian Johns, it should not be forgotten that it was in many ways dependent on the local characteristics of copyright for these advantages.  Without Britain and its copyright system, the Irish reprint industry would have had less incentive and advantage to provide the public with cheaper alternatives.

However price was not the only benefit of pirate publications.  Part II of this post will focus on America, and how piracy not only benefited readers, but was an intrinsic republican value central to the building of a new nation.



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A day at the National Print museum

A recent post by Lisa Griffith on the Irish History Blog Pue’s Occurrences has caught my eye.  Lias has a job working at the National Print Museum in Dublin and the post shares 5 things she has learned there.  Lisa’s post, which reminded me about all the really interesting machines in the National Print museum, also helped to remind me how important it is as scholars dealing with printed matter to understand the physical process of printing.

I was very fortunate, early in my research, to have Dr. Charles Benson insist that if someone was going to study eighteenth century printing they should know the basics of how to operate a hand press.  He took a few of us down to Trinity College’s printing house, where a few hand presses are kept for producing Christmas cards, and gave us an opportunity to set some type, ink some paper, and pull the press.  This exercise, while extremely fun, also gave us an appreciation for the physical strength and dexterity needed to man (or woman) a hand press all day long in a busy print shop, and a greater understanding of the physical limitations of eighteenth century printers.

However, in case you don’t happen to know the man with the keys to Trinity’s printing house, Dublin’s National Print Museum also offers groups a similar chance to play around with a hand press.  The museum, unlike Trinity also contains a very wide range of presses, which really allow visitors to get a sense of the development of this technology over the last several hundred years.  Many other institutions offer tours, summer schools, or master classes which teach individuals the ins and outs of hand printing.

If you are serious about studying any aspect of book history during the hand press period, I would advise that you take advantage of one of these opportunities.  Understanding the production process ggives us a much better appreciation for the materiality of printed objects, and the best way to understand that process is by doing it, even if it is only once.


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Books as History: A Review

In the last few months David Pearson has come out with a revised edition of his 2008 book Books as history: the importance of books beyond their texts.  This book, published by Oak Knoll Press and the British Library discusses the ways in which books, as objects, beyond the text they carry, should be studied as historical  artifacts.

Book Cover

In the book, Pearson explains the evolution of books as objects.  He traces developments in paper technology, binding, illustration, and printing to show how each of these processes contributed to the final product.  Particular emphasis is put on the uniqueness of individual books before the advent of mass production.  This is used as one of the primary reasons for the preservation of ‘old books’ rather than the adoption of digital surrogates which simply re-create the text.

One of the reasons for this new revised edition, is to address many of the developments in digital books and surrogates which have rapidly expanded over the last few years.  The first chapter of this book discusses new technology like the Amazon Kindle.  Though this chapter is freshly revised, and recently published its perspective on the ever quickening pace of technological innovation seems dated already.  (Highlighting one of the problems with printed books).  Pearson believes that the time when books will no longer be the primary means of transmitting ideas is in the forseeable future (if not already here), and that in light of that we need to reconsider our relationship to books and libraries.  In these chapters, Pearson is at his most successful, provoking thought and encouraging mindfulness in our interactions with books.

Since this text focuses on the appearance and physical aspects of books, it should be no surprise that it is beautiful in and of itself.  Perhaps resembling a coffee table book more than your average academic tome, it sports glossy images on nearly every page.  These visual examples are perhaps the most valuable part of the book.  Because of these images, Pearson’s work would make an excellent introductory textbook for bibliographical studies or the history of the book.  For institutions that lack rare books collections, or historical libraries, Pearson’s book provides and excellent opportunity to view the physical characteristics of the objects he discusses.  This is further enhanced by a concise list of further reading and a visual case study at the end of the book.

I have two slight criticisms to offer.  The first, which has been noted before, would be that the images in the book are often separated from the text in which they are discussed making for awkward flipping between pages.  The second, is that the book has a very heavily English bias.  While this is understandable given the author’s position as the Director of Libraries, Archives and Guildhall Art Gallery at the City of London, this may make it less-relateable to readers who are not familiar with English history and literature.

Overall, this book is well worth a read for anyone interested in book history.  The relatively inexpensive price, at less than twenty pounds, makes it a worthy investment as an introduction to the bibliographic arts for students or enthusiasts.



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Should the gardener know how to read?

Lately I have been wrestling with a question.  Was literacy a valuable commodity in early Baltimore’s labor market?  Basically was it economically worthwhile for a poor or working class individual to learn to read?

Hilary Moss in her book Schooling citizensmakes the point that newspaper advertisements seeking ‘colored’ boys who could read and write for unskilled jobs is evidence that employers in early nineteenth century Baltimore valued literacy even for positions that did not require it.  She argues that white employers were trying to reap the rewards of black literacy.  And presumably if they were willing to exploit black worker’s literacy they would be even more eager to exploit that of white laborers?

Baltimore Patriot 11 December 1820

In trying to verify Moss’ argument I went looking for some of these advertisements, but was only able to find one for the period before 1825.  This was in the Baltimore Patriot on 11 December 1820.  While this certainly proves that one person wanted to hire a literate black boy, the advertisement is not necessarily for an unskilled position, since ‘errands and light services’ could mean a range of activities.

This is consistent with a theory that states that education was seen as valuable by employers not because it was necessary for job performance, but for its civilizing value.  Educated workers were believed to be easier to control, less likely to drink, and more responsible.

There was certainly a lot of rhetoric floating around at the time which linked education and literacy to moral improvement and social respectability.  Education has always been linked to the American ideal of social mobility.  Certainly religious groups felt that working class individuals could be improved through Biblical reading.

However this doesn’t actually prove that an education was economically beneficial to poor and working class men and women.  In fact, an old study by Michael Sanderson on nineteenth century Lancaster  in England could not find any correlation between literacy and increased pay among industrial textile workers.  His study did show that literacy increased social mobility for those lucky enough to obtain it during childhood, but for workers performing various types of manual labor, even highly skilled, literacy was of secondary importance.

Work by Peter Watkinson on apprentices in Petersburg, Virginia shows that  even though education was supposed to be a mandatory part of their apprenticeships, many were very indifferent about attending school.  He suggests that older examples of non-literate individuals who had found success in life, served to down-play the importance young apprentices placed on literacy within their own economic futures.

Ultimately I don’t have enough information to answer my own question.  Some hard statistical data from the 1840 census, which includes basic information on occupation and literacy, would go some way towards providing an answer.  However, the point is still worth considering.  Would you as an employer care if your gardener could read?  Would you use literacy to differentiate between candidates despite the fact that it had no bearing on their ability to perform the job in question?  As a poor worker in urban Baltimore struggling to survive, would you see an education as an economic asset or a waste of valuable time when you could be earning a wage?


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Printing the Declaration of Independence

Today I saw a brief news article which claimed that a rare copy of the Declaration of Independence had been found by a man from Pennsylvania.  This find, if authenticated, would be the second known copy made with the anastatic printing process, a process which uses acid to transfer text, rom the copy of the Declaration which now resides and the US Nation Archives.

For a copy of the article click here.

However, since this week 235 years ago the Declaration was first signed, and since I am currently writing about Charles Carroll of Carrollton, one of the original signers, I think this is an appropriate moment to spent some time thinking about how the first few editions of the Declaration of Independence were produced.

The image of the Declaration of Independence that most of us have, is of a handwritten document. Photographs, television and movies have made sure that most Americans at least are fairly familiar with this version of the text.  Our image is of the text which is currently in the National Archives, the one which may now have a new copy.  This was how the document would have been presented to King George; however most people in the eighteenth century would have only seen a copy of the document in its printed form.

The first edition of the Declaration was printed by John Dunlap in Baltimore.  Dunlap was the official printer for the Continental Congress, but he also published a newspaper in Baltimore, Dunlap’s Maryland Gazette.  Dunlap was originally from Strabane, Ireland, but had been apprenticed as a printer under his uncle William Dunlap in Philadelphia.  Though nominally located in Baltimore during the 1770s, Dunlap followed the Continental Congress, so his imprints appear from several locations.

Though the first edition of the Declaration was produced by an Irishman, the first official edition of the document was printed by a woman.  Mary Katherine Goddard was also a printer in Baltimore, and Dunlap’s main competition.  There she ran the Maryland Journal and Baltimore Advertiser and the post office for her brother William Goddard.  Originally from Connecticut, Goddard was well-known and respected as a printer.  It is likely that she was given the contract to print the official version due to her brother’s connections.  William Goddard was at the time trying to set up a new American postal system, independent of the British.

The Declaration was very quickly printed as a one page broadside by printers up and down the American coast.  This format retained many of the visual features of the hand-written document, which was written in a fairly standard format for official petitions.  The broadside was useful both for personal reading and for posting up for public consumption.  The format was cheap and quick to reproduce.  For those who did not have access to the broadside, the text of the Declaration was widely re-printed in newspapers.

In an interesting side note, the first newspaper to reprint the Declaration outside America was the Belfast News-Letter.  Though it is not quite
clear how the Belfast printers got their copy of the document, there is one very plausible theory.  John Dunlap could have very easily sent copies of his edition of the Declaration to his relatives in Strabane or even directly to the News-letter’s editor in Belfast.  This is probably the only way that the News-Letter would have had time to print their copy before the London newspapers.

Though the Declaration of Independence was written by a Virginian in Philadelphia, it was some unlikely provincial printers who first made it available to the average American as a printed broadside.  Next time you think of the Declaration, try to imagine it not as a hand-written document, but as a contemporary reader would have seen it, as a printed one.

Printed Broadside 1776

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