June 4

At the age of seven years Isaiah Thomas was indentured to a Boston printer named Zechariah Fowle, on this day in 1756. The articles provided that:

“The said apprentice, his said master and mistress, well and faithfully shall serve; their secrets he shall keep close; their commandments lawful and honest everywhere he shall gladly obey; he shall do no damage to his said master, etc., or suffer it to be done by others without letting or giving seasonable notice thereof to his said master, etc.; he shall not waste the goods of his said master, etc., nor lend them unlawfully to any; at cards, dice, or any other unlawful game or games he shall not play; fornication he shall not commit; matrimony during the said term he shall not contract; taverns, alehouses or places of gaming he shall not haunt or frequent; from the service of his said master, etc., by day or night he shall not absent himself.”

Printer Fowle agreed on his part to furnish the lad with room and board and clothing and to instruct him in reading, writing, and ciphering. Isaiah was to remain an apprentice until his twenty-first year, with the provision that when he reached his fourteenth year he could break the contract if he decided that he did not wish to be a printer.

Fowle was a lazy and ignorant printer who earned his living by printing and hawking on the streets licentious ballads and what would probably now be called pornography, a practice not at all unusual for the 18th century, even in Boston. Thomas’ biographer relates that, “Then babies, ladies, and even the most saintly of the clergy, in jest and in ordinary conversation, used language which today would startle an aviation mechanic. Fowle could not have corrupted his apprentice by his ‘licentious’ ballads for the simple reason that there was nothing which he could teach anyone who lived a few years in the eighteenth century about those subjects which we today consider taboo.”

While the printer treated his bound boy with relative kindness, he did subject him to all of the chores of a household in addition to those of a printing office. The boy had to stand on a bench in order to reach the cases to set type, a task which he was required to do almost immediately upon becoming apprenticed. No doubt his learning in “reading” was self-acquired as Fowle never honor his part of the bargain about teaching young Thomas to read and write. In his first job of composition Thomas matched the letters with the words which he had to set. It took the lad two days to set the fifty-six lines of the ballad entitled The Lawyer’s Pedigree which was sung to the tune of Our Polly Was a Slut.

Isaiah Thomas was possessed of character, however. He remained with Fowle until he was seventeen years of age, finally leaving secretly. He traveled to Halifax, with the intention of continuing to London to complete his education as a printer, as he had learned, in spite of his tutor, to love the craft. Thomas eventually became the best known printer of his time and one of the most properous. He wrote the first history of printing to be published in the United States, History of Printing in America. He retired from printing in 1802, devoting the balance of his life to scholarship and to founding the American Antiquarian Society, of which he was the first president. He died in 1831.

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