March 19

Samuel Sowers' graveAdvertising in the Federal Gazette of Baltimore on this date in 1812, Samuel Sower, typefounder, and grandson of the earlier founder, Christopher Sower, stated that he was “ready to execute orders for sizes from diamond to French canon, including music, script, and German text.”

The tenth son of the second Christopher Sower, Samuel had originally been a house carpenter in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania, but turned to the art of apothecary and apparently finding the printer’s craft an improvement upon alchemy, he learned that, too. By his twenty-fifth birthday, young Sower was busy producing books and had acquired sufficient skill to set up a press in Baltimore from which he published a German weekly newspaper, adding bookbinding and bookselling to his activities a few years later.

As Samuel Sower had sprung from a family of typefounders who had been pioneers in that trade in America, he had sufficient knowledge of it to be able to cast some type for his own use, and possibly influenced by his fellow printers who needed new types, he enlarged these activities into the establishment of a typefoundry in partnership with William Gwynn in 1804. This firm, which was known as the Baltimore Type Foundry, purchased the equipment of the Fox Foundry from Emanuel, son of Justus Fox, who had been an employee of the first Christopher Sower. Thus some of the original Sower equipment was returned to the family possession.

In a letter which Sower wrote in 1808 he waxed enthusiastic over the fortunes of his business: “The business of typefounding is making great strides,—orders are pouring in from everywhere, so that we cannot fill half of them. We have undertaken to cast the smallest type that have yet been used in the world. You may judge of its fineness when it takes 4-5,000 spaces to weigh one pound. Of this type we have an order from New York for 300 pounds for a Bible. . . . If we could get Antimony enough, we could have work for twelve founders. I am working night and day. We have eleven boys and six journeymen at work and orders for 5,000 pounds type.”

Sower’s “smallest type” was a diamond size (4-point) and is possibly the first casting in the United States. There were few printers then, however, who wished to be concerned with such microscopic type, and fewer still today. The American Type Founders Company presently markets but a single type cast on a 4-point body, called Boxhead Gothic. Most contemporary compositors would be inclined to seek instruction in the operation of the Linotype machine if requested to set such a tiny type on a regular basis.

Sower, in his letter, also remarks on a couple of problems which plagued the early American typefounders. They were completely dependent upon Europe for antimony, and this necessary metal was expensive to obtain as the Congress had exacted a high duty on its importation. One of the earliest Congressional lobbies by printers had effected a change in this ruling in 1804, but it remained in insufficient supply for many years.

The Baltimore Type Foundry continued after Samuel Sower’s death in 1820 and after a number of changes in ownership it became one of the firms to take part in the amalgamation of foundries into the American Type Founders in 1892.

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