Printing Technology

views updated


Some historians argue that technologies of print precede cultural transformation. That is, printing conditions and shapes the emergence of a new political and social order and the creation of a new form of collective subjectivity, as well as an enlightened public, rather than the other way around. Other historians have argued to the contrary that society, science, capitalism, and republicanism have not so much been shaped by print as they have shaped print. Navigating a path between these two views, one can more accurately describe the relationship between printing technology and culture as dynamic and reciprocal, rather than as static and sequential. The idea that printing technology had a democratizing and rationalizing impact on the new nation is therefore only one side of the coin: the politics and culture of the new nation produced and structured the practices of printing technology, turning it into a highly efficient medium for republican ideology.

Throughout the eighteenth century, the commercial character of printing in America was its key distinguishing feature. In comparison to their European colleagues, American printers faced several obstacles in their struggle to survive, causing fierce rivalry in the domestic American print market. Their main disadvantage was a chronic lack of capital, making colonial and Revolutionary American printers dependent on importing key technologies from Europe. Thus commercial printing-press building as well as type-founding did not gain a firm foothold in North America till the end of the eighteenth century. Further, until 1800 American printers had to import most of their ink from England or Germany. Another difficulty was the production of paper. Before the technique of using wood pulp was developed in 1849, paper mills depended on a constant supply of rags, ropes, and other flax- or hemp-based materials. The quality and supply of the paper were sufficient for the production of newspapers, broadsides, pamphlets, almanacs, and other short and ephemeral works, but books intended for longer use were printed on imported Dutch or English paper. The shortage of type and the cost of paper (up to half the cost of printing) were inimical to the production of relatively long books, such as novels. Thus it took Benjamin Franklin two years (from 1742 to 1744) to print the first American edition of Samuel Richardson's Pamela. In fact, no other unabridged English novel would be reprinted in American until the Revolution. The Peace of Paris opened up the trade with Britain again, and book production in America was restarted; but type, paper, and capital remained in short supply, hampering book production through the 1790s and into the early decades of the nineteenth century.

The first printing press to be established in the British North American colonies was founded at Harvard College in 1639. By 1760 there were forty-two printers in America, some owned by individual entrepreneurs and others by groups, such as the Puritans in New England or the Germans in Pennsylvania, who used printing as a medium to enhance group cohesion. Most American printers adhered to the universal enlightenment ideal of disseminating news and useful information to the nation. During the Revolutionary and early national periods, Americans used printing technology to shape the public political discourse of independence and republicanism. By 1820 more than two thousand newspapers and more than three hundred journals had been published.

The use of print to shape national identity was facilitated by developments in printing technology itself. Throughout the eighteenth century most printing offices in the United States owned only one or two presses. The largest printing shop was that of Isaiah Thomas, who had twelve presses in his Worcester printing office and five in a Boston subsidiary. Printers who could afford an English press imported it; others bought their presses secondhand (most of which had been imported before). Even as late as the 1790s there were only one or two American press makers, but this number increased rapidly during the first two decades of the nineteenth century, when new technological and scientific knowledge enabled many advances: the wooden press became an iron press, rollers instead of balls inked the type, horsepower and steam power replaced manpower, stereotyping became a normal procedure, and lithography began to be used for illustrations.

The transition to power presses evolved in fits and starts. The first experiment with a steam-power press in 1819 was a failure, but in 1822 Jonas Booth of New York built the first successful one in the United States; Booth's abridgment of Murray's English grammar is said to be the first book to be printed by such a press. One of the most successful early power presses, relying on horsepower as steam engines were still hard to come by, was the one designed by David Treadwell of Boston in 1829; about fifty Treadwell presses were built before 1830. Rapid developments in type founding, font designing, paper production, stereotyping, and lithography led to an industrial revolution in print technology in the early national period.

See alsoIndustrial Revolution; Newspapers; Politics: Political Pamphlets; Press, The; Print Culture; Printers; Steam Power; Technology .


Lehmann-Haupt, Hellmut, Lawrence C. Wroth, and Rollo G. Silver. The Book in America: A History of the Making and Selling of Books in the United States, 2nd ed. New York: R.R. Bowker, 1951.

Silver, G. Rollo. The American Printer, 1787–1825. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1967.

Thomas, Isaiah. The History of Printing in America: With a Biography of Printers and an Account of Newspapers. 1810; 2nd ed., 1874. Edited by Marcus A. McCorison from the second edition. New York: Weathervane Books, 1970.

Wil Verhoeven