Houghton Library houses a selection of old books, almanacs, and broadsides from Harvard’s first printing press (1638-1692). “The ‘Bay Psalm Book’ is in a lot better shape than the paperback you bought 10 years ago,” said rare books expert Hope Mayo, the Houghton Library’s Hofer Curator of Printing and Graphic Arts. (Harvard owns one of the 12 extant copies, one of which is seen here.)

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

Harvard’s first impressions

8 min read

The instrument behind New England’s first literary flowering

As Harvard celebrates its 375th anniversary, the Gazette is examining key moments and developments over the University’s broad and compelling history.

In the summer of 1638, the John of London set sail from Hull, England, bound for the Massachusetts Bay Colony. On board was Puritan minister Joseph Glover with his wife Elizabeth and their five children. In the ship’s hold was his wooden printing press valued at 20 pounds, paper worth twice that much, and a quantity of lead alloy type.

Centuries later, Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison called the John of London “the publishing fraternity’s Mayflower.”  That little press, made of pegged timber and iron, was destined to be the first in British North America, the first at Harvard, and the first printing press in the New World managed by a woman. (Glover died during the trans-Atlantic crossing, and his wife carried on.)

The press, designed to print one sheet of moistened paper at a time, was the first piece of equipment in a publishing operation that was to print English America’s first book, its first periodical literature, and its first best-sellers, including Michael Wigglesworth’s fervent poem about the Last Judgment called “Day of Doom” (four editions, starting in 1662) and Mary Rowlandson’s 1662 captivity narrative. In sum, “We are looking at the first flowering of American literature coming out of the Harvard press,” said Lisa Brooks, who is John L. Loeb Associate professor of the Humanities.

Brooks is writing a book about James Printer, the Nipmuc Indian typesetter, who starting in 1659 played a key role in printing the Eliot Indian Bible (1663), a rendering of the Old and New Testaments in Algonquin. Printer, trained at Harvard’s preparatory school on Crooked Lane, knew Greek, Latin, English, and his native Algonquin. When he arrived on the scene, the translated Bible ceased to be just a pipe dream for John Eliot, a Puritan minister and “apostle to the Indians” who started preaching in the “Massachusett” language in 1646.

From the beginning, Glover’s little press was a cultural leap forward in Cambridge, a frontier town two miles upriver from Boston Harbor. It helped to legitimize Harvard, a wilderness Puritan college modeled — perhaps prematurely — on its iconic English cousins at Oxford and Cambridge. In the fall of 1638, one hopeful resident wrote, “wee have a Cambridge here, a college erecting, a library, and I suppose there will be a press by winter.”

And there was. As early as December 1638 the little press turned out a broadsheet titled “The Freeman’s Oath,” a document that every man over 20 years of age, and six months a householder, had to swear to in order to become a citizen of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

That fall Elizabeth Glover had settled into the Haynes mansion in Newtowne Square, on the site of present-day Peet’s Coffee & Tea. Her indentured servant, Stephen Daye, moved into a house on nearby Crooked Lane, located at what is now 15 Holyoke St. With him were his three sons, his wife, and the printing press.

Daye (who by 1655 would sign his name “Day”) was English America’s first printer, for which he won lasting fame among bibliophiles and students of American printing. But in truth, Daye was a locksmith by trade and an ironworker by inclination, and besides was barely literate. It is likely that his teenage son Matthew, who is believed to have apprenticed as a printer in England, brought what skill there was to New England’s first printery.

There were material challenges. The Crooked Lane printery was a “tiny, crude, candle-lit, one-press shop,” wrote one historian. The type was worn, the handmade paper was uneven, the ink was poor, and the press was simple. “The results obtained,” wrote scholar of print Sidney A. Kimber, “matched the equipment.”

Supplies were also a problem as the years went on. Metal type was so notoriously hard to make that it had to be imported for the next 150 years. Printing ink, a mix of varnish and lampblack that was hard to get right, was imported too. Most paper came from Europe for at least another century, since the Colonies had a shortage of both rags and skilled workmen. Presses were hard to make. The first American-made press was built by a New Haven clockmaker in 1769.

And there were literary challenges. Early products of the press at Cambridge were flawed. There were typographical errors, inventive spellings, and missing words. But even in England, apologetic scholars point out, printing had fallen on hard times. One 1631 Bible was called the “wicked Bible” because the word “not” was left out of the seventh commandment.

In Cambridge, printing triumph and printing embarrassment met in one document, “The Whole Booke of Psalms” (1640). It was English America’s first printed book (triumph), but its run of 1,700 copies was marred by blurred type and typographical errors (embarrassment). At the base of some pages, lines bow upwards, where the press’s type was improperly locked in place.

Then there was the translation itself. The psalms were faithful to the original Hebrew, but the Colony ministers at work were more scholarly than poetic. “God’s Altar needs not our pollishings,” warned the preface, and the translations within “have attended Conscience rather than Elegance.” The 23rd Psalm, for instance, begins this way:

The Lord to mee a shepheard is,
Want therefore shall not I,
Hee in the folds of tender-grasse,
Doth cause mee down to lie;

But for all its faults, what we now call the “Bay Psalm Book” was a brilliant creation that rose above the technical limitations of the press and its early workers. It was also sturdy, owing to nonacidic ink and to thick paper made from linen and cotton rags. “The ‘Bay Psalm Book’ is in a lot better shape than the paperback you bought 10 years ago,” said rare books expert Hope Mayo, the Houghton Library’s Hofer Curator of Printing and Graphic Arts. (Harvard owns one of the 12 extant copies.)

By the third edition, in 1651, the “Bay Psalm Book” ’s rude translation was smoother, due in part to Henry Dunster, Harvard’s first president. But Dunster had a far bigger role in English America’s first printing press: In 1641 he married the widow Glover, and so gained control of what was the sole printing office in the colony until 1675. The press was moved in 1645 to the president’s lodgings at the south end of what is now Harvard Yard.

In its first 10 years, the press was largely underused, despite the triumph of the “Bay Psalm Book.” The 23 imprints of that first decade included Commencement broadsheets, a speller, a catechism, and 10 almanacs. (These last, with charts and essays, were New England’s only periodical literature until the advent of newspapers in the18th century.)

Stephen Daye in the 1640s turned the business of printing over to son Matthew.

The younger Daye died in 1649, and Dunster hired Samuel Green, a Cambridge jack-of-all-trades. He was to oversee Harvard printing operations until they shut down in 1692. (After that, Harvard did not have another press of its own until 1871.)

By 1659, Harvard had acquired a second press, and had moved operations into the new Indian College, Harvard’s first brick building. In the same year, Green received help from New England’s first legitimately trained printer, a London journeyman named Marmaduke Johnson. Printing quality improved, making the Eliot Bible, crisp and neat, the triumph it was. But Johnson raised Puritan ire by racking up debts, drinking to excess, and — despite being a married man — forcing his affections on one of Green’s daughters.

Harvard’s first printing press itself, for all its importance to English America’s early literature, has been lost to time. Morison speculated that it was ready for “the junk pile” even before 1700. But until the 1950s most scholars of printing believed that the so-called Stephen Daye press was used well into the 18th century, and ended up in the Vermont Historical Society’s museum in Montpelier. “It’s possible, but we don’t think so,” said museum curator Jacqueline Calder, citing current scholarship.

Still, the timber-frame “common press” on display in Montpelier resembles the one Stephen Daye unpacked in 1638. Stout and plain, it has had a place in the museum since the 19th century.

But many modern visitors are puzzled by the contraption. “I don’t think people realize what it is,” said Calder. “I don’t think they realize the importance of printed materials.”