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Philadelphia: Hotbed of Early American Politics--and Printing

By Kristin Masters. Jul 6, 2014. 9:00 AM.

Topics: Book History, History

 On March 4, 1681, William Penn was granted a large swath of land southwest of New Jersey. He named it "Sylvania," (Latin for "woods"), and King Charles renamed it Pennsylvania in honor of Penn's father. Within three years, Pennsylvania had its first printing press. The first American publication may have been printed in Massachusetts in 1639, but Philadelphia soon emerged as a major publishing center. By the time the Liberty Bell rang on July 8, 1776, the city was already a bustling center of both politics and printing. 

Initially a Religious Endeavor

The Quakers were the first to take up publishing, printing religious tracts and other didactic materials. William Bradford, the first printer in Philadelphia, actually found himself forced out of the city because he printed a tract that criticized the Quakers. Bradford relocated to New York, where he had a successful career; his son Andrew would return to Philadelphia and set up the city's first independent press in 1713. At first, the younger Bradford printed religious tracts using equipment he rented from the Quakers. But as soon as he could, he purchased his own equipment and published his own materials. 



Philadelphia printer William Bradford was pushed out of the city for criticizing the Quakers. Later, he would protest the Stamp Act by printing a skull and crossbones where the stamp would go. 

In 1719, Andrew started the American Weekly Mercury. The periodical was the first in Philadelphia, and only the third in the colonies. The publication was only the start of the family's long legacy; the Bradford family published for generations, in both New York and Philadelphia. They're considered some of the most important and distinctive printers in the history of America. 

Benjamin Franklin Makes a Mark

Around the time that Andrew Bradford was starting his newspaper, young Benjamin Franklin was starting his apprenticeship at his brother's print shop. Born in Boston in 1706, Franklin would enter the publishing world at the ripe age of twelve. When he was seventeen, Franklin left Boston to make his own way in the world of publishing. He found his way to London before landing in Philadelphia in 1728. 

Franklin_Poor_Richards_AlmanacSoon Franklin had acquired his own printing press. Though Franklin started with conventional religious texts (his first publication was probably the Psalms of David), he soon ventured into other genres. He captivated his colonial audience with an easy writing style and clearly had a sense for the market; Franklin's publications were often considered the finest in the colonies. Franklin edited the most famous of these, Poor Richard's Almanack, from 1733 to 1758. The book sold an average of 10,000 copies per year on the continent.

In 1740, Franklin printed the first novel in America, Samuel Richardson's Pamela. Many popular works of British literature soon followed; thanks to the lack of international copyright law, any publisher could acquire literature published overseas and publish his own pirated version of the same. For collectors who specialize in works from the early modern period, this circumstance makes for some interesting collecting! (It's interesting to note that Charles Dickens rallied for international copyright law, but found little support among his fellow authors; the Confederacy passed a law in 1861--garnering Dickens' support--but it was not until 1891 that foreign authors had any rights under American law.)

By the time Franklin retired from the trade in 1748, Philadelphia already had six printing presses and three newspapers--even though the city had only 10,000 residents. Over the next three decades, over forty more printers would open up shop in Philadelphia. The city's printers would publish not only religious texts, but also encyclopedias, textbooks, almanacs, and newspapers, not to mention plenty of government documents and political treatises. Philadelphia emerged as a center for publishing works of science and medicine as well; by 1776, eighteen Philadelphia presses were devoted to printing medical texts. 

A German Influence on Colonial Publishing

During the mid-1700's, Philadephia saw a surge in population, and a significant portion of new residents were German immigrants. By the 1770's, about one-third of the city's population were German speakers, and German-language titles accounted for a full 15% of titles published in Philadelphia between 1740 and 1776. 

Christoph Sauer established himself as the leading publisher of German-language books. For English-language publications, he often anglicized his name to Christopher Sower. His newspaper became one of Philadelphia's most popular, and remained so until many years after his death in 1758. Sauer's sons and grandsons continued publishing the newspaper thereafter. Meanwhile, Sauer was renowned for his prayer books and Bibles. His German-language Bible, first published in 1748, was the first European-language Bible published in the colonies. Another Philadelphia publisher, Robert Aitken, would publish the first English-language Bible in the colonies in 1782. 

A Hotbed of Nationalist Aspirations

Thanks to its fertile land and accessible location, Philadelphia was a truly desirable place to live. By the mid-1700's, the city had grown larger than Boston. As dissatisfaction with British rule grew, Philadelphia naturally got revolutionary fever. The first Continental Congress took place in Philadelphia's Carpenters' Hall in 1774. Thomas Jefferson and others drafted the Declaration of Independence (which Franklin then edited) in Philadelphia in 1776. Thus it should come as no surprise that, other than during a nine-month occupation in 1777-1778, Philadelphia was the seat of the new American government throughout the Revolutionary War. From 1790 to 1800, Philadelphia was also the nation's capitol: Washington, DC was under construction. 

Matthew_CareyLong before the American Revolution, plenty of political tracts had come off Philadelphia presses. The British government frequently came under scrutiny. Local papers were numerous, and their editors were vocal. The majority of political tracts leading up to the revolution espouse either Jeffersonian Republicanism or Federalism. Fervent interest in politics did not subside after the war ended; Philadelphia remained an actively political city. 

It also remained an actively growing city--both in population and printing presses. By 1800, Philadelphia was the center for American publishing. About 70,000 books went to press. Twenty years later, almost 500,000 books were published. By this time, a new generation of publishers had entered the scene. Most notable was Matthew Carey, often called the "father of modern publishing." Carey reorganized the way that books were distributed and introduced the idea of publicizing books.

Carey's business grew so quickly, he had to hire specialists to handle different parts of the publication process. Before this, there was little separation between printer and publisher (and sometimes bookseller), so the printer also acted as editor, proofreader, etc. Carey was the likely the first to hire a dedicated full-time proofreader. His business would last for almost two centuries, though under different names. 

Thanks to figures like Bradford, Franklin, and Carey, Philadelphia offers us a rich history of printing. Their successors, however, would lose ground, and by the middle of the nineteenth century New York City had prevailed as the nation's most prominent publishing city. 


A Selection of Rare Books Published in Philadelphia


West Virginia: Its Farms and Forests, Mines and Oil-Wells

First Edition in Very Good+ condition with chipped spine head, small tear to upper spine, worn extremities, bookplate, small bookseller's sticker to lower front pastedown, previous owner's name to front pastedown and gutter of front flyleaf, and purple stamp to first leaf. Original cloth. 

Swanson p. 35: "Eleven chapters dealing with petroleum, its discovery in West Virginia, drilling and distillation; description of oil fields of West Virginia; list of companies; discussion of prospects. Describes early dug wells.". Details>>


Memoirs of the Rev. Zebulon Ely, AM of Lebanon, Connecticut

A collection of First Editions by the Rev. Zebulon Ely in Very Good- condition with marginalia, light scattered soiling, and age tanned pages. All disbound. Shaw 20402. Also included are a number of first editions from Ely: A Gospel Minister, Though Young, Should Be Respectable (1806); The Wisdom and Duty of Magistrates: A Sermon (1804); The Three Funerals (1809); The Peaceful End of the Perfect Man (1809); A Summary of the Duty of a Gospel Minister (1804); The Editors of the Connecticut Courant Present to the Public Connected with the Forgoing Sermon (#5) (1804; not in Shaw).  

Many of the title pages have Laura Ely's signature; The aforementioned were bequeathed by Laura to her niece Sarah Victoria per handwritten gift inscription on front endpaper.Details>>


A Dissertation on the Influence of a Change of Climate in Curing Diseases

The First American edition in Very Good+ condition, light rubbing and spotting to boards, chipped spine label, head and tail, pages clean. Shaw/Shoemaker 34814. 

Translated from the third, enlarged and revised Latin edition of 1785, published in the Thesaurus Medicus Edinburgensis Novus. The translator, William P. C. Barton, M. D. , the eminent botanist and University of Pennsylvania professor, also served as a US Naval surgeon, commanding office of the Naval Hospital in Norfolk, Virginia, and was appointed by President John Tyler as the first head of the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery in September 1842 (the forerunner of the office of US Surgeon General). Details>>


Swiss Family Robinson

A Very Good+ early publication, late 1920s, early 1930s, in publisher's black stamped green cloth, color illustration mounted on front board, color frontispiece. In the scarce, illustrated dust-jacket, somewhat soiled with wear and minor loss at crown and foot of spine, as well as top area of folds, still Very Good. 

Johann David Wyss' famous tale about a Swiss family shipwrecked in the East Indies en route to Port Jackson, Australia. First published in 1812 when Wyss, an army chaplain with four sons, wrote it to entertain them. Illustrated with 50 b&w drawings and vignettes. Details>>


Lives of the Queens of England, from the Norman Conquest

A handsome Third Edition/Later Printing in Very Good+ with heavy scattered foxing. Rebound in 3/4 Leather binding with four raised bands. Three volumes bound in one. [i-xvi], 17-203 [204]; [2] 7-222 [2]; [2]-253 [254] [4] pages. 

"An announcement of this work ... appeared in the Literary Gazette of August 26, 1937, and other leading periodicals of the day, under its original title of "Historical Memoirs of the Queens of England" (from the preface). Details>>


Our Fishery Rights in North America

An attractive copy in Very Good condition with lightly sunned original printed wraps. A slip saying "Compliments of Joseph I. Doran, Philadelphia, PA" pasted on upper front wrapper. Front wrap is printed '"Our Fisheries"--Thos. Jefferson' and bears an ink New York Library State Library stamp. 

An historical view of the disputes between the U. S. And Canada over fishing rights. Details>>

Kristin Masters
Master Content Brain. You think it, she writes it, no good thought remains unposted. Sprinkles pixie dust on Google+, newsletters, blog, facebook, twitter and just about everything else.


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