by Michael DeLong

February 28, 2001


















The story of colonial printing is a very interesting occupation. Printing in colonial America was also a long, difficult process. It was also very important because it ran newspapers and told events. It was most valuable when people needed information or wanted to get ideas around town. Read on to discover more about the printers.

The story of printing lies very far back in history. In 1638, Jose Glover brought some ink, type, paper, and a printing press to America on a ship. Jose died during the voyage, so his friends took the equipment. Various men operated shops from 1639 to 1695, but in 1696 Dinah Nuthead became the first woman printer in America. The first newspaper was in Boston, and it was called Public Occurrences. It criticized the British in their war with the French, so they stopped it. William Bradford started Pennsylvania’s first newspaper and press. The beginning of printing began a very long time ago.

Printing was restricted at first. Both Benjamin and James Franklin were skilled printers, but they could print only what the government approved at first. Marmaduke Johnson wanted to set a new press and print whatever he wanted. John Peter Zenger, a printer, was put on trial for printing things that criticized the British government. His lawyers argued that Zenger had merely printed the truth. He was not found guilty, and spoke out, saying, "No man, whatever his position, should be able to suppress or stop the publication of his wrongs!" The trial was a great success for American printers. From now on, Britain had to suffer furious attacks by the colonists, who printed whatever they thought to be the truth.

To print a single page took a long while and was very complicated. An early colonial printer had to be a writer, an editor, a publisher, a compositor, and a pressman. He needed three main things: ink, type, and a printing press. When the type arrived, he put it in a tray called a case. It was in two sections, one containing the uppercase letters, one containing the lowercase. Then he set the letters into words, copying a sheet of handwritten paper. He slid them into a frame using a composing stick. He also spaced them out evenly, and he put them in a galley. The type was inked roughly to make any corrections or changes. He locked them in a metal frame, and tapped the letters to make them even. Printing involved a lot of tools.

Now the form was ready to go to the press, a wooden machine standing a foot higher than a man. The printer placed the form in the coffin of the press. Then he inked it again. He then placed paper on the tympan and folded the frisket over it. He folded both parts again. Now the paper was above the inked form. The coffin slid along some carriage rails to reach a piece of wood called the platen. The platen was attached to a large screw inside a hose, which hung from a crossbar. When all was set, the printer put a bar in the screw and worked it down so it held the platen onto the coffin, leaving the paper on the inked type. Then he removed the printed page to dry. When it had, he washed it with a liquid called alkali. It left the ink clean and easy to read. The printers did their best, so the people could read the words and ideas they printed.

Printing was very important to the colonies. It ran newspapers and posted lots of information. Printing also played a key role in getting the colonists to rebel against Britain. Importing the tools was hard, but the printers rarely complained about it. It was a long, complicated process, but in the end, it was all worth it.



Alkali-liquid used to wash ink and make it easy to read

Coffin —frame fastened on a wooden plank between two rails

Composing stick-small, flat frame

Chase-large metal frame

Carriage-table-like frame

Devil-young apprentice

Frisket-light frame hinged to tympan

Galley-metal pan used to hold type

Hose-box that held screw

Tympan-two tightly fitted frames over stretched parchment






Everett Fisher, Leonard. The Printers. Tarrytown, New York: Benchmark Books, 2000.


Granger, Frank. Woman Printers in Colonial America. World Wide Web, 1997.

The World Almanac, 2001. Mahwah, New Jersey, 2001.