“Dear Jonathan: we’re doing pretty good here, winter was a bitch, but we came through OK. Got your last care package, the truffles kind of spoiled but gosh, tell Constance her shortbread cookies are the best! And, can you throw in some bolts of poplin for Mauve, a couple of saddles, some pig iron – and if you have a spare printing press laying around, ship ‘er over, that would be simply smashing!”
Your Pal, James A. Winthrop III

Guess what? I wasn’t going to discuss this, at least much, but the events of this first decade of the 2000’s have kind of forced me to. The words “middle class” has become a torch, a lightening rod, a bundle of kindling soaked with gasoline. Middle class is a phrase that, no matter, who you are, had a specific, defined meaning in our country for a long time. But how did it all get started?

Europe, especially England and Holland, was toying with the idea of the middle class in the late 1600s. The various merchant classes in a few countries was becoming quite successful (read: rich) and the combined emergence of apprenticeships, which started as a way to get free or really cheap labor, had taken off, mostly because it was a way to get free or really cheap labor (that DOES bare repeating).

There were a lot of young boys who didn’t have anything better to do – and families who were eager to get those young boys out of the hovel. Remember, Europe had denuded most of its forests, causing sweeping environmental havoc on the farms and pastures since every time it rained, yucky mud slid down on everything. Healthy forests are a good thing to have around but the various ruling classes in Europe didn’t get that message for several hundred years.

In the late 1700s, a few things were going on at the same time in England: the rise of metallurgy, which led to the production of cheaper and better steel, and the first attempts at steam power. Coal, which was being used to heat homes, important during that Little Ice Age that vexed Europe for about 400 years, now took on a more important role in the Industrial Revolution. Invention and innovation had arrived, not too soon, to a bleak and blighted Europe. Historians call this The Age of Enlightenment.

As English, French and Dutch colonists hit the shores of the New World, this invention and innovation didn’t stop. Rather, it flourished. While the colonists were still subjects of their respective crowns, they certainly were not subject to the same scrutiny as they had been back in Europe – and each succeeding generation was born into and probably expected even more freedom.

There were the obligatory king’s soldiers to keep the peace and make sure the colonists remembered their places, and the upper crust of royalty, wanna-be royalty and a smattering of folks who were really making a killing financially (Zinn, A People’s History of the United States). But shoes had to be made, tools repaired, taverns opened, whiskey bottled. Villages, towns, and cities were popping up everywhere, and that meant a lot of building. Roads needed cobbled, bridges built. A lot to do, and everybody was able to find something to keep idle hands occupied.

Unless you were lazy, or a miscreant, and if you were, that wasn’t tolerated for long.

It is telling that one of the first “things” that was brought over by English colonists from Europe was a printing press in 1639. Many of the colonists – far from being the illiterate dunces we like to think they were – were thirsty for news and reading material of all types. This was NOT the first printing press to reach North America – Spaniards had actually brought the first one to Mexico in the 1530s.

According to Harvard’s web site (Cambridge, Mass. was the home of this press), the first printed piece was the Freeman’s Oath of the Massachusetts Bay Colony* in 1639. It read something like:

This oath is in the original Caslon font, which was used almost exclusively for decades in early America.

Voting? Giving voice? Hmmm, sounds like the beginnings of a middle class to me!

The Freeman’s Oath may be one of the more over-looked documents of the early colonies. it was not only a “who’s who” of male colonists (those oaths were filed away), is was also a nifty organizational tool for what was to come.

Even though sworn allegiance to the Crown was No. 1., it also set a standard for town meetings. Town meetings – and voting – were a Big New Thing. No European country could claim that town meetings were an official, OK thing.** But in the New World? We call this meeting to order!

And the printing press made it all possible.

*Some sources say the Bay Psalm Book was the first publication, in 1640. The distinction may be between “book” and “piece.”

**If I’m wrong about this, let me know.