Home  »  Volume XVIII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART III  »  § 1. Cambridge and Boston in the Seventeenth Century

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVIII. Later National Literature, Part III.

XXIX. Book Publishers and Publishing

§ 1. Cambridge and Boston in the Seventeenth Century

THE HISTORY of book publishing in British North America begins with 1640, when Stephen Daye printed at Cambridge The Bay Psalm Book, the first real book to issue from a press north of Mexico. Daye continued to print for only about seven or eight years, when he was succeeded by Samuel Green, for causes known only to the authorities of Harvard College, under whose direction this first American press was operated. Back of Harvard stood the more or less arbitrary authority of the Crown, exercised against publication in more than one colony through some ultra-conservative governor or council. In fact not until about twenty-one years before the Revolution were legal restrictions removed from publishing in the colony where it was born.

These restrictions, in the case of Massachusetts, were largely motivated by religion; and the early issues of the press were almost entirely religious in character. The first monument of American scholarship and printing ability, for instance, is The Holy Bible … Translated into the Indian Language, Cambridge, 1663. Six years later from the same press appeared what seems to be our first original book not strictly religious in character, Nathaniel Morton’s New England’s Memorial. Moreover this work announces that it is “Printed for H. Usher of Boston.” Urian Oakes’s Elegie Upon the Death of the Reverend Mr. Thomas Shepard, in some respects the best poem produced in the colonies before the eighteenth century, dates from 1677. As early as 1693, at least, book dealers had begun to sell private libraries, for in that year appeared The Library of the Late Reverend and Learned Mr. Samuel Lee … Exposed … to sale, by Duncan Campbell, Boston. At Boston also was issued in 1717 A Catalogue of curious and valuable books, belonging to the late Reverend & learned Mr. Ebenezer Pemberton … To be sold by Auction, at the Brown Coffee-House in Boston, the second day of July, 1717, which is held to be our first auction sale catalogue of books.

With these dates, involving as they do scholarly activity, press work of some note, printer and publisher, adumbrations at least of literary genius, and the circulation of books through carefully formulated advertisement, the history of American publishers and publication may truly be said to be under headway. In these early days, as well, even in the stronghold of the Puritans, there were attempts at something above mere utilitarianism in books, for about 1671 John Foster, the earliest American engraver and the first person to set up a press in Boston (in 1675), had published an engraved portrait of Richard Mather. In the same town in 1731 appeared what is regarded as our first portrait engraved on copper plate.