“Dear Jonathan: thanks for the guns and the knives and that printing press you sent the last shipment. Wow, that’s the slickest thing since sliced bread, which hasn’t even been invented yet. But anyway, it sure goes through the paper, who would have thought? Enclosed is our next wish list, and that includes 18 crates of paper. Can you slip over to Kent and get those OK? Thanks a bunch and Constance sends her love!”
Your Pal, James A. Winthrop III

Update, Feb. 27, 2015: Update on the Twitter Archive at the Library of Congress

One of the most entertaining and informative writers of our time is Sarah Vowell. She proves that you don’t have to be a starchy historian to make a point, as she does in The Wordy Shipmates, a clever and erudite history of the early Puritans in the New World.  This book is not only a paean to the written word, it is also proof  that history can be fun – and funny.

For her book, Vowell interviewed Michael Comeau, Assistant State Archivist for the Massachusetts Archives in Boston, who told her, the Puritans of the 17th century “killed themselves to make sure there was a paper trail.” That quote captured my attention, so I contacted Michael to ask him about printing in early America, and printing today, too.

The first colonial printing press arrived in Cambridge, Mass., in 1639 (remember this wasn’t the first press in the New World), but by 1700 there were several print shops in Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania. Those crafty colonists began making their own presses afterthey got the first few from England.

I wondered if he knew how many printing presses there were in New England say, by 1700. He didn’t know, but mentioned that the Massachusetts Legislature General had to approve the operation of print shops, although this authority may have been limited to printing only official or Colony -sponsored documents.

Working with these documents, Comeau said, develops a certain respect for them. “You really appreciate what they did and it’s our responsibility to make sure they’re sustained, available,” he said, which led to the next question: What about now?

In the not so distant past, Americans kept diaries, journals, wrote letters. Now we Tweet, Facebook, and Blog. But we don’t “Keep Our Tweets.” Who’s doing what to ensure that people 200 years from now can read and think about what we’re digitally scribing today?

“That’s a real concern,” he said. “With (material) going digital, everything is preservable, but who will do this, and how? It’s a real issue, and there’s a lot of work to do as archivists…” He also echoes concerns I’ve heard from other historians and archivists about the demise of newspapers in our country. They have always been consistent (if not accurately inconsistent) chroniclers of our nation. Paper, hard copy, is tactile and familiar. “Where is the capture (process) for digital newspapers?” Comeau asked. “Our responsibilities as archivists don’t go away, we just have to figure out how to do it in a standardized way.”

I feel his pain. I have been involved professionally in some local projects to archive, preserve, and display materials from decades past. In the 16 years I’ve been in business, we’ve gone from floppy discs (1.4 MB) to Zip Discs (750 MB), to CDs, (700 MB), to DVDs (4.75 GB) to thumb drives (10, 20, 30 + GB). So, if somebody 100 years from now finds a thumb drive at a 22nd Century version of a yard sale, will they know where to put it?

Back to the 1600s. Printing presses were churning out oaths, documents, and even seditious material (see below). Pamphlets and books of all sorts (including the obligatory various versions of the Bible) were also in the mix. Having a printing press was obviously a labor of love, since demand was few and far between, at least in the first few years.

“The only job that kept the Cambridge Press busy in its early years, and which required the hiring of an experienced English printer, Marmaduke Johnson, was the printing of the Eliot Indian Bible (c. 1660). This massive and atypical job was almost an English publication, in the sense that it was entirely subsidized, including additional printing equipment, by the Corporation of the New England Company. However, like similar projects in the Spanish New World colonies, its American publication was necessitated by the location in the colonies of competent proofreaders of the Indian languages.” Excellent, excellent source: williamreesecompany.com

After 1700, however, things really took off. For one thing, a young guy named Benjamin Franklin showed up in Philadelphia, and he not only liked to write, he liked to publish. Franklin didn’t invent the newspaper, but in the New World, his name became (and still is) synonymous with the printing press.

There are no accurate figures for how many books, pamphlets, hymns, sermons, or even government documents printed in the early 1600s to the mid-1700s. Certainly thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, but most have been lost (so, look in your attic…or your grandmother’s attic…).

Which leads to the question: didn’t somebody “back home” wonder what the heck they were doing with all of that paper?

The first paper mill in America wasn’t established until 1690 (in Pennsylvania). Considering the control that England wanted to assert on its colonists, somebody really missed the tally sheets on that one. As time would tell, the forth-coming American Revolution was fueled by…the printed word. I would bet there would be a direct correlation between the reams of paper shipped and the growing demand for more freedoms, which was being felt as early as the mid-1600s.

Folks in England didn’t have a clue – maybe they should have, with all of that paper exported to the colonies.