Telling the Story of Women in Printing

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, an international celebration of women in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) both past and present named after the early nineteenth-century British mathematician. Here in our corner of early American studies, I want to mark the occasion by working through a question that I’ve worked on in my own writing for years: how do we effectively integrate women into the history of printing in early America?

In accounts of early American printing, women appear most often as colorful anecdote. One of the most common of these examples is that a woman (Mary Katherine Goddard of Baltimore) published the first edition of the Declaration of Independence to bear the names of all fifty-six signers in January 1777. It is, to be fair, a pretty cool and noteworthy item, and I use it myself in both writing and teaching. There are others, of course; several women became official colonial or state printers, and one, Anne Catharine Green of Annapolis, even had a portrait done by Charles Willson Peale (pictured above). There’s also a small literature on women printers, but most of that work was done some time ago and appears in footnotes today largely to buttress the above sort of example.[1]

Most women were not famous, of course (nor were most men, for that matter). As in other artisanal trades, however, women were crucial participants in the printing trade, undertaking a variety of activities to support the operation of a printing office. This included the labor often invisible to modern historians—feeding, clothing, and sometimes boarding groups of teenage boys and young men serving as apprentices and journeymen—as well as tasks in the shop itself, from keeping books to running the sale of both the product of the press and related items, such as books or stationery.

A small group of women (numbering just under 20 before 1800) went a step further, becoming masters of offices and running the entire business for some amount of time.[2] In almost all cases they succeeded to their positions as widows, that is, because their printer husbands died. Most of these women ran the offices only for a short time before they handed operations over to a son, nephew, or trusted foreman, who in turn would continue to provide her income for the remainder of her life.

Each of the above represents an extreme. In the first case, the women were exceptional (and they really were) but their inclusion implies and perhaps justifies their exclusion more generally from the narrative. In the second case, women are too easily confined to an introductory paragraph—here’s what a printing office looked like—and then vanish again into the background. The last case returns us to the exceptional woman argument.

The story is further complicated by gender. It’s probably a separate piece of writing (possibly of significantly greater length than a blog post), but I’ve found evidence running in both directions. The female master printers at times used their gender (if not explicitly than by positioning themselves in connection to their husbands) as part of marketing their business and in their dealings with government entities. But just as often, if not more so, neither the female printer nor her interlocutors made much mention of gender. There’s plenty of evidence that eighteenth-century officials were not shy about expressing their opinions on what they thought women could and could not do, so that fact by itself is somewhat remarkable. But that’s a longer story.

How do we solve the problem of extremes? The short answer is that I don’t know, but I’m working on it in my book manuscript. For one thing, we can include women in the narrative. If a woman is representative of a particular phenomenon, mention her example. For another, we should be mindful of all of the work that goes into the production of items that were printed. It’s not just editing work, and it’s not just pulling the press.

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[1] Of which I was no less guilty in my dissertation. See for example, Leona M. Hudak, Early American Women Printers and Publishers, 1639-1820 (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1978); Richard L. Demeter, Printers, Presses, and Composing Sticks: Women Printers of the Colonial Period (Hicksville, NY: Exposition Press, 1979); Martha J. King, “Making an Impression: Women Printers in the Southern Colonies in the Revolutionary Era” (Ph.D. diss., College of William and Mary, 1992). Isaiah Thomas includes many of these women in his History of Printing in America (1810). I’m also certain I’ve left out good work, but the point of today is to share that, so please feel free to add other titles in the comments.

[2] If you’re interested and your French is up-to-date, I published a brief essay on women printers in colonial America in Le Dictionnaire universel des Créatrices (Paris, 2013).

4 comments on “Telling the Story of Women in Printing

  1. mollyohardy says:

    Great post, Joe! I believe that Karen Nipps bibliography of Lydia Bailey is the first of its kind deciated exclusively to a female printer. http://www.psupress.org/books/titles/978-0-271-05571-8.html

  2. cfsloat says:

    Joe, This post prompted me to go searching for this reference. There is a master’s thesis by Theresa A. Rini: Women Printers in America to 1820 (Southern Connecticut State College., 1978)- Women printers – 244 pages. Theresa was a colleague for many years; she is a former librarian at Old Sturbridge Village.

    • Thanks for the reference, Caroline. I’ve done a fair amount of poking around bibliographies for readings through the years, but hadn’t never seen this. (Also, a 244-page master’s thesis – wow!)

  3. […] printers, Nick Poyntz’s post on Jane Coe, and Joseph Adelman’s recent post on “Telling the Story of Women Printers.” […]

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