“No American has within my knowledge been willing to inhabit a garret, for the sake of becoming an author.”



The Decline of the Book

CONSIDERING the intellectual energy of colonial Americans, their output of books was strikingly small. Even the most literate of them—men like Franklin and Jefferson—did not express their most important ideas in books.

To say, as Franklin did in his circular letter of 1743 proposing an American Philosophical Society, that Americans did not write more books because they were too busy with other things and because American culture was still “immature” is misleading. The book did not flourish here, but other types of printed matter grew in profusion.

Everything dissuaded the colonial printer from undertaking the long volume. First, there was the scarcity of type. In England the supply had been limited as part of the control of the press; a Star Chamber Decree of 1637 allowed only four persons, each with a limited number of apprentices, to operate type-foundries at any one time. Not until the Revolution could American printers buy type of American manufacture. What made the situation in the American colonies even worse was that type brought here was likely to consist of fonts long used and already discarded by English printers. In 1779, when Franklin received copies of the Boston newspapers sent to him in France, he said the only thing he could see clearly in them was that American printers desperately needed new type. “If you should ever have any Secrets that you wish to be well kept, get them printed in those Papers.”

In those days, long before linotype, the number of pages a printer could keep standing in type for any time depended directly on the amount of type he owned. The colonial printer with only a single font of a given size could not keep pages of type standing; he had to set a few sheets, print them, and then distribute the type before he could proceed. A rush order for job printing—for advertising brochures or for the legal and commercial forms which were the backbone of his business—might at any time require the use of his type. Under these circumstances, a prudent printer preferred small jobs which quickly repaid his investment rather than books, whose market was uncertain and on which the financial return might be postponed for a year or more.

The scarcity and the poor quality of paper was another deterrent to book printing. Although William Bradford, a Philadelphia printer, had established a paper mill near Germantown as early as 1690 and paper-production had increased during the colonial period, American printers still remained dependent on European supplies. One reason why the Stamp Act and the Townshend Acts were so irritating and helped set Revolutionary events in motion was that they included paper among the imported articles to be taxed. Even apart from any large issue of principle, the high price of paper itself gave colonial printers a reason to stir up American indignation. The crucial necessity of paper imports for colonial printers is shown by the fact that the cheaper grades of paper which were used for newspapers were excepted from some of the Revolutionary non-importation resolutions in 1769.

During the Revolution, George Washington had to write to his generals on odd scraps of paper because nothing better could be had; loose dispatches were sent to officers because paper was too precious to be used for envelopes. Correspondents wrote on fly-leaves torn from printed books and on the blank pages of old account-ledgers. Sometimes, for lack of paper, weekly issues of newspapers failed to appear, and often they were printed on whatever miscellaneous colors, sizes, and qualities of paper the printer could find.

The paper scarcity was acute during most of the colonial period because of both the scarcity of rags from which paper was made and the lack of skilled papermakers. When William Parks set up the first paper-mill in Virginia in 1744, he used the columns of his Gazette (July 26, 1744) to persuade citizens of Williamsburg to sell him their worn linen garments:

Tho’ sage Philosophers have said,

   Of nothing, can be nothing made;

Yet much thy Mill, O Parks brings forth

From what we reckon nothing worth….

(And long that gen’rous Patriot live

Who for soft Rags, hard Cash will give!)….

   Ye Fair, renown’d in Cupid’s Field,

Who fain would tell what Hearts you’ve killed;

Each Shift decay’d, lay by with care;

Or Apron rubb’d to bits at—Pray’r,

One Shift ten Sonnets may contain,

To gild your Charms, and make you vain;

One Cap, a Billet-doux may shape,

As full of Whim, as when a Cap,

And modest ’Kerchiefs Sacred held

May sing the Breasts they once conceal’d.

   Nice Delia’s Smock, which, neat and whole,

No Man durst finger for his Soul;

Turn’d to Gazette, now all the Town,

May take it up, or smooth it down.

Whilst Delia may with it dispence,

And no Affront to Innocence.

New England printers used a more theological whimsy to promote their business. In the valuable paper-cargo of a captured Spanish ship which Thomas Fleet, Boston printer and stationer, bought in 1748, he found some bales of papal bulls or indulgences. On the backs of some he printed popular songs like “Black-Eyed Susan,” “Handsome Harry,” and “Teague’s Ramble to the Camp,” while others he advertised for sale: “the Bulls or Indulgences of the present Pope Urban VIII, either by the single Bull, Quire or Ream, at a much cheaper Rate than they can be purchased of the French or Spanish Priests, and yet will be warranted to be of the same Advantage to the Possessors.”

Such paper as was made in the American colonies, then, while tolerable for newspapers, pamphlets, broadsides, almanacs and primers, was not fit for a book which had to last years. For books the colonial printer had to order from his London agent a supply of European (preferably Dutch) paper. It was difficult or impossible to secure enough paper of the same quality for a whole book; yet the printer could not afford to keep his small quantity of type standing until enough paper for the whole work had arrived. He therefore found it necessary to set only as much of the book as he had paper for; he then stored the printed sheets and distributed the type, until the arrival of more paper allowed him to go on.

Ink was also a problem. The leading printers’ handbook (Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises of 1683) advised that manufactured ink was inferior to that which printers might mix for themselves, but colonial printers lacked the lamp-black and varnish from which ink was made. They therefore continued to rely heavily on inferior ready-made ink imported from England, Printing presses, too, had to be imported; it was 1769 before Issac Doolittle of New Haven built the first American press as a commercial venture.

It is not surprising, then, that few books were printed in the American colonies and that the staple commodity of the American bookseller throughout the colonial period was the imported book. Revolutionary non-importation agreements in 1769 were careful to enumerate “printed books and pamphlets”—along with gunpowder and fishhooks—among the items that might still be brought from England. Not until the end of the 18th century did the importation of English books begin to be affected by the competition of American imprints.

It is remarkable, indeed, that the colonial printer succeeded in printing even those books he did—the solid volumes of statutes, the occasional works of recent history, or the religious tracts. Everything he printed bore the mark of his crude equipment and scarce materials. Economy of materials induced the printer to save paper by using a smaller type than was desirable. In some instances economy encouraged simplicity but the paper shortage generally discouraged the spacious design which would have pleased the eye.

Though Americans tried to import some of the English improvements, American printing lagged technically far behind that of England throughout the 18th century. During his stay in England after 1724, Benjamin Franklin—with his uncanny talent for being in the right place at the right time—happened to work for some of William Caslon’s sponsors and was therefore in a position to know about Caslon’s improved typefaces, which he imported to America in the 1740’s. But not until 1790, after type-founding and paper-making were well-established American enterprises, did the first monumental work appear from an American press: the serial publication beginning in 1790 of the American issue of the Encyclopaedia Britannica which ran to 18 volumes and required seven years to print.

Since the beginning of his trade, the European printer had tried to protect his investment by securing in advance the support of a rich patron, who in return usually expected a flattering dedication. Gradually, as the book-market widened, printers sought many patrons instead of one for each publication; people agreed in advance to buy a particular book when it finally came off the press. When the market became still wider, as in 18th-century England, publishers began to risk their own funds. But the longer American books continued to be published with the patronage of public officials, governors, and legislative bodies. The sycophantic dedication to a Lordly patron, who had bought and paid for his compliments, is rarely found in volumes printed on this side of the ocean. During the 18th century the American printer, more than his English counterpart, tried to cover his investment by advance subscriptions.

When books had to be subscribed in advance, there was every reason for the printer to play safe, to be wary of the novel idea, the unknown author, the radical questioner. Whenever a printer ventured a book without subscription, he tried not to venture into the unknown. The publishing list of even the enterprising Benjamin Franklin was solidly conventional. Franklin published, as Carl Van Doren has pointed out, to make either money or friends; preferably both. His government printing, his almanacs, and such books as Every Man His Own Doctor (1734), The Gentleman’s Farrier (1735), and his edition of The New England Primer brought in a tidy profit.

The output of American books increased during the 18th century, but few works of lasting significance appeared. The longer and more numerous items, especially in New England, tended to be religious works—sermons, tracts, practical guidebooks, and Biblical commentaries—though not necessarily works of theology. Leading the large sellers among American imprints were schoolbooks like The New England Primer, practical handbooks like John Tennent’s Every Man His Own Doctor, business manuals like William Bradford’s Young Secretary’s Guide, ready reckoners, and books of tunes. In the South, religious works were outnumbered by legal books. Because the colonies possessed many legislatures, few trained lawyers, several systems of courts, and a largely lay judiciary, legal handbooks were everywhere in demand among laymen. There were, of course, a few oddments, like The Bay Psalm Book (1640), Jonathan Edwards’ Enquiry into the Freedom of the Will (1754), and the Mennonite Book of Martyrs, Der Blutige Schau-Platz (1748), which with its 756 leaves had the distinction of being the largest (reputedly also the ugliest) book published in the colonies before the Revolution.

In the words of the observant author of Bibliotheca Americana, who wrote from London in 1789:

North America may want some of the fopperies of literature. She boasts not those dignified literati, who in Europe obtain adulation from the learned parasite, and applause from the uninformed multitude, for pursuits and discoveries that terminate in no addition to the real elegancies or conveniences of living….

Whatever is useful, sells; but publications on subjects merely speculative, and rather curious than important, and generally such on the arts and sciences, as are voluminous and expensive, lie upon the bookseller’s hands. They have no ready money to spare for any thing but what they want; and, in literary purchases, look for present, or future use.

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