University of Rochester Library Bulletin: Isaiah Thomas

Volume V · Autumn 1949 · Number 1
Isaiah Thomas


Commemorating the birth of Isaiah Thomas two hundred years ago on January 19, 1749, Rush Rhees Library exhibited in January a collection of books printed or published by the New England printer. Although books bearing the Thomas' imprint are necessarily nearly two hundred years old, a surprising number of titles were discovered in private and college libraries in Rochester. Miss Etta Cook, a member of the staff of the Colgate-Rochester Divinity School Library, located seven Thomas items in its collections, including a leaf from Thomas' Greek New Testament, and the earliest imprint in the exhibit, Benjamin Foster's God Dwelling in the Tents of Shem printed in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1775. In the collection of children's books assembled by Mrs. C. Schuyler Davis, and now stored in the University Library's vault, two children's books printed by Isaiah Thomas were found, History of Little Goody Two-Shoes and The History of the Holy Jesus. Mr. Horace Hart loaned us six titles with Thomas imprints, including a copy of the two-volume work by Isaiah Thomas on the history of printing in America and the October 13, 1775, issue of his newspaper,Massachusetts Spy. (Later Mr. Hart purchased and gave to the Library the issue of the Massachusetts Spy for October 27, 1775.) The Printing House of Leo Hart is publishing a series of books, known as the "Printers' Valhalla," devoted to individuals whose careers contributed to the development of bookmaking since the invention of typography. As one of this series, a biography of Isaiah Thomas by Clifford K. Shipton, Isaiah Thomas, Printer, Patriot and Philanthropist, 1749-1831, was published recently. Mr. Shipton is librarian of the American Antiquarian Society of which Isaiah Thomas was founder and first president. Mr. Shipton's biography has been used extensively in preparing both the exhibit and this article.

From the several libraries in the University, it was possible to secure thirty titles either printed by or for Isaiah Thomas. The Medical Library loaned Benjamin Bell's Treatise on the Theory and Management of Ulcers printed at Boston in 1797 and William Cullen's Synopsis and Nosology sold at the Worcester bookstore of Isaiah Thomas in 1792. From Sibley Music Library we were able to borrow five music books printed by Thomas, including an edition of Laus Deo! The Worcester Collection of Harmonywhich, when it first appeared in 1786, was a pioneer effort in the printing of music in the United States. From its textbook collection, the Women's College Library provided us with five examples of Thomas' textbook publications, among them a copy of a Greek grammar by Alexander Caleb which is believed to be the first constructed by an American author and the first book making extensive use of Greek type published in this country. In Rush Rhees Library there are eighteen titles printed and published by Isaiah Thomas, making a total of forty-five titles which were exhibited.

Mr. Shipton in his biography of Isaiah Thomas remarks that surviving evidence makes it seem clear that he was the most important printer and publisher of his generation, even exceeding Benjamin Franklin in the number of books published. It is estimated that over nine hundred books were printed by Thomas and his partners. The New England printer and publisher began his profession as a six-year­old apprentice to Zechariah Fowle, a Boston printer of dubious ability. The boy actually learned more about printing from a young partner of Fowle, Samuel Draper. Eventually a serious quarrel between Fowle and Thomas caused the latter to break his indenture, and at sixteen he set out for London to learn the printing trade from a master and become a really fine craftsman. He never reached England but remained in Halifax as an apprentice to Anthony Henry, the only printer in town. Thomas was made responsible for bringing out the Halifax Gazette, the single newspaper in the province and official government organ. A tendency to bait the government over the issue of the Stamp Act finally forced Henry to dismiss his American apprentice, who returned to the Colonies. After several years in Charleston, Thomas returned to Boston with plans for establishing the finest newspaper in America.

His former master, Zechariah Fowle, took him into partnership, and on August 7, 1770, the first regular number of the Massachusetts Spy was issued, and the Spycontinued to appear regularly until 1904, long after the death of Isaiah Thomas. Subscriptions for the new paper increased rapidly, so that Thomas soon was able to buy out his partner's interest. As political tension grew in Boston, Thomas found it expedient to remove his press to Worcester, forty miles to the west. The Spy continued to appear during the Revolution, but Thomas had to struggle with shortages of paper, poor ink, and worn type. The columns of the Spy included news of local and national affairs, agriculture and other special sections, and occasionally entire books reprinted in installments.

Isaiah Thomas made several attempts to establish a successful literary magazine. Before the Revolution he published The Royal American Magazine, which was one of the first periodicals in America to issue words and music for songs. Thomas next issued The Worcester Magazine which was actually the Spy in octavo form with some magazine features. After the Spy resumed newspaper form, Thomas published The Massachusetts Magazine which was similar to The Royal American Magazine in content, but never became financially successful.

Thomas' New England Almanac, in contrast, was a publishing staple which carried his name throughout the country and brought in regular profits. It contained the usual astronomical data plus verse, jokes, political documents and essays, and pages for daily records and expenses. Thomas himself used a copy of the Almanac as a diary and account book.

Isaiah Thomas pioneered in other fields of publishing. In the eighteenth century few people could read music, for books with music were both scarce and expensive. When Thomas received a shipment of music type from England in 1784, he immediately began work on the hymnal, Laus Deo! The Worcester Collection of Sacred Harmony.Although music had been printed earlier by type brought from Holland, the only music known in New England had been engraved. Therefore Thomas believed he was issuing the first music printed with type in America.

Although Thomas never considered his children's books worthy of deposit in the library of the American Antiquarian Society, he was the most successful printer of children's books of his time. At first reprinting the English classics, in 1785 he began publishing his own series. Children's books were then largely gloomy admonition, but Thomas introduced books that would amuse as well as instruct. According to his own estimate, he printed 66 titles in 119 editions.

Probably the most profitable part of the Thomas business was the publication of textbooks. Quick to recognize good quality, Thomas published Noah Webster's speller, grammar, and dictionary as soon as they appeared. In response to a schoolmaster's request, he printed the excellent speller by William Perry and later his dictionary. Printing a dictionary was a difficult job that no American printer had as yet undertaken successfully, but Thomas sold fifty-four thousand copies of Perry's dictionary. Copies of the Webster speller and of two editions of Perry's dictionary were displayed in the exhibit.

In the 1790's Thomas reached the zenith of his career. With his partners he directed the activities of five bookstores, three newspapers, the best magazine in the country, and a paper mill. He was in a financial position to take risks and showed good taste in choosing works for publication, among them Jeremy Belknap's American Biography,the first great American biographical dictionary, Sterne's Sentimental Journey and Frances d'Arblay's Evelina and Camilla. These titles were all included in the exhibit of Thomas imprints. One of Isaiah Thomas' most ambitious projects was the printing of a two-volume folio Bible lavishly illustrated with copperplate engravings. This Bible became so famous that it has been mistakenly described as the first Bible printed in America in English.

After 1802, Isaiah Thomas spent an increasing amount of time upon two special interests. For years he had been collecting material illustrating the history of printing in America before others became interested. In 1791 he had bought an Eliot Indian Bible for seven dollars and for fifty dollars he bought Fleet's own file of the Boston Evening-Post for 1735-1775. For months Thomas gathered facts from libraries and newspaper offices in New England and in 1810 he published the History of Printing in America which remained until 1936 the best general history on American printing.

As a result of his research for the History of Printing in America, Thomas realized the need for a society which would collect and make available to historians the source materials of American history. Through his efforts the American Antiquarian Society was incorporated in 1812 for this purpose. Thomas was elected its first president. He presented to the Society his own historical library and was instrumental in securing the first home of the Society.

An examination of the books printed by Isaiah Thomas reveals steady progress in literary and typographical taste. While much of his success as a publisher is due to shrewd choice of titles and to the first mass production of books in the United States, he constantly endeavored to improve the quality of his printing and to introduce new ideas into the publishing business. Through his newspapers and almanacs, hymnals and textbooks, Bibles and children's books, novels and religious tracts, he reached into the life of nearly every American of his era. For him printing was not only a lucrative business, but an art that he loved and respected. Isaiah Thomas will long be remembered as a publisher and printer, as the founder of a fine research center, and as a citizen conscious of the needs of his city and country.