Thomas, Isaiah (1750-1831)
Isaiah Thomas (1750-1831)
Printer and publisher
Another Franklin . Isaiah Thomas emerged from a poor Boston family to become the most important early American printer after Benjamin Franklin. His early career was much like Franklin’s. He was born on 30 January 1750 and at age six was apprenticed to work in a print shop, even though he could not yet read. He began setting type for reissues of popular works by comparing the shape of the pieces of type with the letters in the book to be reprinted. Thomas learned his trade quickly and took over management of his master’s shop when he was only thirteen. He was becoming quite successful when a fight with his master prompted him to leave Boston in 1766. He hoped to go to London to perfect his trade, as Franklin had done, but only made it as far as Nova Scotia. There he did his first newspaper work, on the Halifax Gazette, before his opposition to the Stamp Act forced him to return to Boston. He then found his way south and worked on the South Carolina and American General Gazette before returning to Boston in 1770. That year he founded the Massachusetts Spy, one of the most successful colonial newspapers. The Massachusetts Spy was outspoken in its support of the Patriot cause. When the British occupied Boston, Thomas relocated to the rural town of Worcester, Massachusetts, and continued his political publishing from there.
Success. Thomas became the leading book publisher in early America. He began publishing in 1771 the first of his annual almanacs. Thomas’s New-England Alamack was enormously successful; he printed three thousand copies in 1781 and twenty-nine thousand in 1797. He marketed it through an extensive network of shops, agents, and partners, which gave him a national presence as a publisher and bookseller. His Worcester shop grew steadily, employing 150 people working on seven presses during the 1790s. The quality of his books was unmatched in the nation. He published the third English Bible printed in the United States, the first in the large folio format, with engravings by American artists. He had type for a smaller Bible, the “standing Bible,” permanently set aside in order to be able to run off copies of this steady seller as they were needed. Thomas also printed the first American dictionary and many educational, religious, and literary works, including in 1789 The Power of Sympathy by William Hill Brown, the first novel by a native American author. Children’s books also flowed from Thomas’s presses, including the first American edition of Mother Goose’s Melody in 1786. Thomas published magazines as well, notably the Massachusetts Magazine (1789–1793). It was financially unsuccessful but nevertheless helped set the standards for literary success in this emerging business.
Philanthropy . After 1802 Thomas began to turn over his printing enterprises to others while turning himself into a scholar and philanthropist. He drew on his large library as well as his own experience to write the History of Printing in America (1810), which remained a standard work for more than a century. In 1812 he founded the American Antiquarian Society, and his library became the center of that institution’s collection of early American materials (today it is one of the most extensive in the nation.) Many other learned societies benefited from his membership, time, and efforts, and in this work Thomas contributed greatly to the cultural development of the new nation. Like Franklin’s, Thomas’s career demonstrated how important the printing of books and newspapers could be to founding a new nation and shaping its identity. Thomas died in Worcester, Massachusetts, on 4 April 1831.
Clifford K. Shipton, Isaiah Thomas: Printer, Patriot and Philanthropist (Rochester, N.Y.: Leo Hart, 1948);
Benjamin Franklin Thomas, “Memoir of Isaiah Thomas,” in Transactions and Collections of the American Antiquarian Society, 5 (Albany, N.Y.: Joel Munsell, 1874), pp. xvii–lxxxvii.