January 19

“Amidst the darkness which surrounds the discovery of many of the arts, it has been ascertained that it is practicable to trace the Introduction and Progress of Printing, in the northern part of America, to the period of the revolution.”

Thus a printer named Isaiah Thomas who was born on this day in 1749, stated his case in the preface to The History of Printing in America, published in 1810 in Worcester, Massachusetts. This book is the first account we have of the development of the craft upon these shores. Subsequent scholarship has filled in a number of the gaps in the Thomas history, but the broad outline is that of the Worcester printer. It might have been of greater value had it included more details in the operation of the colonial printing offices, but as Thomas was concerned only with historical factors, we must be grateful for what we have been given.

Thomas had himself been a printer from his sixth year. He had advanced to the point where he was recognized as one of the important printers of his era. In addition he was one of the wealthiest. The last thirty years of his life were devoted to scholarship, the printing history being one product of this period. He was at work upon a second edition at the time of his death in 1831, having hoped to update much of the information contained in the original work. The second edition was finally published in 1874, by the Albany, New York printer and antiquarian, Joel Munsell. Munsell added a number of footnotes, including those left by Thomas in the possession of the American Antiquarian Society.

One of the valuable features of the history is the biographical information about the individual printers of the period. Although not complete in personal data, the book gives voluminous accounts of the printers’ careers. In one of the biographies, that of Zechariah Fowle, Thomas slyly pays off an old debt. Having been indentured to Fowle for eleven years, during most of which time the master reneged on his contract with his apprentice, Thomas—recording for posterity—wrote, “Fowle was a singular man, very irritable and effeminate, and better skilled in the domestic work of females, than in the business of a printing office.”

In addition to writing about the printing establishments in the American Colonies, Thomas included an account of the newspapers of the period which has become a most important source of information to modern students of journalism.

Thomas is honored as the first American scholar of the printer’s craft. Upon his retirement from active participation in his scattered enterprises, he estimated his worth at over $150,000. At his death he was considered to be one of the richest men in the United States. In 1825 in an address before the Philadelphia Typographical Society, he said, “Could I live my life over again and choose my employment it would be that of a Printer.”

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