June 14

In the wake of the Conquistadors the art of printing came quickly to the New World. To Mexican printers must be given the credit for a number of notable firsts in the history of American printing. It was upon this day in 1544, just forty-two years after Columbus stepped upon the shores of the Western Hemisphere, that the House of Juan Cromberger completed the printing of Doctrina Breve Muy Provechosa de las Coasa que Pertenecen a la Fe Catolica y a Nuestra Cristiandad, by Bishop Zumárraga, which is considered to be the oldest known book to appear in either of the Americas.

As early as 1534 Bishop Zumárraga, returning to Mexico from a trip to Spain, reportedly brought with him a printer named Esteban Martin, who set up a small press with a limited amount of type and produced two books of which no known copies exist: the Escala Espiritual and the Catecismo Mexicano. As proof of the existence of Martin’s press, a letter exists in which the bishop wrote to the king, stating: “Little progress can be made with our printing because of the scarcity of papa.” Additionally, Esteban Martin, printer, is reported as having received citizenship by the council of the city of Mexico. The requirements for such acceptance included five years of residence.

In 1539 the printing office of Juan Cromberger in Seville, Spain, sent to Mexico an Italian printer named Juan Pablos, along with a pressman, Gil Barbero, with instructions to open a branch office. Pablos arrived in Mexico City in September and quickly set up his press, producing his first book, Breve y Mas Compendiosa Doctrina Cristiana en Lengua Mexicana y Castellana, a quarto containing twelve leaves, by December, 1539. This volume has been described, but the only known copy has since disappeared.

During the next two years two other books were printed, of which only fragments are presently in existence. It is known that in 1543 still another volume was produced, but that volume also has been lost. Thus, the reputation of Pablos as the first New World printer must rest with the Zumárraga work of 1544, of which there are nine copies extant.

By 1559 the monopoly enjoyed by Pablos was broken when his assistant, Antonio Espinosa, who also has the distinction of being the first to cut a type and cast it in the Americas, secured permission to set up a press. Within the next forty years there were nine presses in operation in Mexico.

Some of the New World “firsts” include the initial printing of a dictionary in 1555, the first ecclesiastical treatise in 1549, and the premier production of literary essays, Comentariain Ludovici Vives Exercitationes Linguae Latinae, by Francisco Cervantes de Salazar, in 1554. In the same year were published the first college textbooks.

The first book on physics, Phisica Speculatio, written by Fray Alonso de la Veracruz, was printed in 1557, and Pedro & Ocharte printed the first psalter in 1584. Dominating early Mexican printing of coarse were the works on Christian doctrine and religious instruction, followed by grammars, vocabularies, and dictionaries of the Indian languages, although the incunabula also includes song books, histories, medical books, law books, and scientific works.

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