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The Cost of Independence Pt II: John Dunlap, Founding Printer

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This post is by Anastasia “Tasha” Binkowski, a Librarian in Residence working in the Rare Book & Special Collections and Manuscript Divisions.

The Early American Paper Money Collection will soon have a revised finding aid. After some research into how this material came to be at the Library of Congress, I realized that the loose bills I wrote about for this blog back in November were not the Library’s only holdings. In 1901, the Library bought at auction a bound volume of similar bills. My colleague in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Amanda Zimmerman, tracked down this uncataloged item in our stacks around the holidays. (Thanks for the present Amanda! Cash is always better than a gift card.) This addition to the collection includes particularly exciting examples of early American paper money which connect with some major treasures in the Library by way of their printer, John Dunlap.

Detail from the Dunlap broadside, pictured in full below. (July 4, 1776)

Some readers may be familiar with what we call the ‘Dunlap broadside’. Broadsides are large sheets of paper, printed on one side like a poster, that were popular in the 18th century as a means for the rapid distribution of information. They were posted in town halls and other public meeting spaces, and often reprinted in local newspapers. John Dunlap (1747-1812) began his career as a printer in Philadelphia in 1757 at the age of ten. After apprenticing to his uncle for over a decade, Dunlap would go on to buy the shop. On July 4th, 1776, Dunlap’s shop began printing the first broadside copies of the Declaration of Independence.

Declaration of Independence
The Rare Book & Special Collections copy of the Dunlap broadside. (July 4, 1776)

The Declaration was adopted by the Continental Congress on the 4th of July and a committee took a handwritten copy, possibly Jefferson’s own rough draft, to Dunlap for printing on the same day. He worked through the night and copies were sent the next morning to commanders of Continental troops, including George Washington, and other officials. The text was followed by the words “Signed by Order and in Behalf of the Congress, John Hancock, President. Attest. Charles Thomson, Secretary.” John Hancock’s “John Hancock” isn’t present; in fact it would be months until broadsides of the Declaration were printed, by Mary Katherine Goddard of Baltimore, with the names of the members of Congress.  The Engrossed Declaration on parchment, signed by 56 delegates, may be more familiar to readers from the film National Treasure. For more information on this copy, see the National Archives and Records Administration.

We don’t know exactly how many copies Dunlap’s shop produced the night of July 4th, some estimate about 200, but only 26 are known to exist today. The Library holds two of those copies, one in the Manuscript Division and one in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division. The Manuscript Division copy came as part of the George Washington Papers; he had the Declaration read to his assembled troops in New York on 9 July. Perhaps because it spent time on the battlefield, or simply because broadsides were not made to survive for hundreds of years, this copy is now a fragment with only the first 54 lines. The Rare Book Division copy, part of the Peter Force Library purchased by act of Congress in 1867, is the complete document.

The back and front of a three pence note printed by John Dunlap. (April 10, 1777)

John Dunlap would go on to print currency for Pennsylvania for years, beginning in 1777. The examples in the addition to the Early American Paper Money Collection were issued by an Act of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania on March 20, 1777, exactly 243 years ago as I’m writing this. The Assembly approved £200,000 to support the army; Dunlap printed bills ranging in denomination from three pence to four shillings, each denomination with a different border. Arms of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania were first introduced in an official capacity on the front of these bills, a seal made up of three images: a ship, a plough, and three sheaves of wheat. The new arms replace the British Arms which are found on earlier issues. Not merely decorative, these details helped to combat counterfeiting, which was so common that the back of each bill also features a warning: “To Counterfeit is Death”. Yet another check for legitimacy was the paper’s watermark, which reads: “PENSYL/VANIA”.

Eighteen pence note featuring the Arms of Pennsylvania. (John Dunlap, April 10, 1777)

Much like today’s Euro and other currencies, lower denominations were smaller. This was probably an attempt to make more efficient use of paper, since more of the low denominations were printed in this issue, enough that there were three different plates denoted by a small letter A, B, or C on the front in the bottom right corner. The eighteen pence, or one shilling sixpence, bills and the four shilling bill in the collection are larger and use the extra space to feature a farming scene on the back. The same image appears on a 1773 issue printed by Hall & Sellers, successors to Ben Franklin. Dunlap would copy their technique of nature printing on a later issue as well, suggesting some level of cooperation between the two shops.

In September of 1777, the British occupied Philadelphia. Dunlap moved his press to Lancaster, PA, where the Philadelphia Assembly was meeting. Congress moved to the nearby city of York, and Dunlap became the printer for the Journal of the Continental Congress. He was able to return to Philadelphia the following July and would continue to print money until 1781 when the Continental Congress disbanded.

Detail from the back of a nine pence note issued by Pennsylvania. (John Dunlap, April 10, 1777)

From my work describing the 366 items in the Early American Paper Money Collection I’ve observed that the red ink used to write in serial numbers and to sign each bill is more likely than black ink to have faded to the point of illegibility. Many of the examples from this March 20, 1777 issue have this problem. Perhaps with digitization, imaging, and other preservation and testing techniques researchers will read those signatures again in the future.

I like the thought of the Declaration and bills like these being printed by the same ink-stained hands in the same shop down the street from Independence Hall. They’re both print artifacts of this moment of vital importance in our nation’s history, reunited at the Library, each with something to say about the other.

Comments (12)

  1. Lovely work

  2. Thank you for your post. Are there any books written about John Dunlap you could suggest?
    Thank you.

    • I haven’t seen anything about a book about him. I have only really found smaller pieces like this from Appleton’s Cyclopaedia of American Biography.
      (p 272)

      Or Harper’s encyclopedia of United States history
      (v 3, p 202)

      Here are some sources from his entry in the American National Biogaphy and a few other sources. Most of these will small biographical pieces.
      Earl G. Swem, “A Bibliography of Virginia, Part II,” Bulletin of the Virginia State Library (1917).
      Leonard W. Levy, Emergence of a Free Press (1985)
      Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., Prelude to Independence: The Newspaper War on Britain, 1764–1776 (1958);
      Dwight Teeter, “John Dunlap: The Political Economy of a Printer’s Success,” Journalism Quarterly 52 (Spring 1975): 3–8, 55,
      Dwight Teeter, “Press Freedom and the Public Printing: Pennsylvania, 1775–1783,” Journalism Quarterly 45 (Spring 1968): 445–61
      American Authors and Books. 1640 to the present day. Third revised edition. By W.J. Burke and Will D. Howe. Revised by Irving Weiss and Anne Weiss. New York: Crown Publishers, 1972.
      Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1928-1936.
      A Dictionary of Irish Biography. By Henry Boylan. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1978. (also 2nd and 3rd editions)
      Dictionary of Literary Biography. Volume 43: American Newspaper Journalists, 1690-1872. Edited by Perry J. Ashley. Detroit: Gale Research, 1985.
      The Encyclopedia of American Journalism. By Donald Paneth. New York: Facts on File, 1983.
      Drake’s Dictionary of American Biography. Including men of the time, containing nearly 10,000 notices of persons of both sexes, of native and foreign birth, who have been remarkable, or prominently connected with the arts, sciences, literature, politics, or history, of the American continent.
      Journalists of the United States. Biographical sketches of print and broadcast news shapers from the late 17th century to the present. By Robert B. Downs and Jane B. Downs. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 1991.
      The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography. Volume 19. New York: James T. White & Co., 1926.
      Who Was Who in America. A component volume of Who’s Who in American History. Historical Volume, 1607-1896. Revised Edition. Chicago: Marquis Who’s Who, 1967.

  3. I have a record of John Dunlap being married to Sarah Ector is this true?

    I appreciate any info you can share.

    Thank you

    • John Dunlap the printer’s father name was, I think, John Dunlap and it may be it was that John was married to Sarah Ector. However, I am a business librarian not a genealogist so you may want to contact and they can assist you in understanding who she was.

  4. I started researching Dunlap a few years ago – this is very helpful information. Beyond pieces printed in Philadelphia, Lancaster, and York, PA, I’ve seen a piece printed by Dunlap with a Charlottesville, VA attribution.

    I’d love to learn more about your Dunlap research – please drop me a line, if possible. Many thanks.

  5. I believe I have an original paper money printed by John Dunlap (April 10th, 1777), PRINTED ON IT, “According to an act of GENERAL ASSEMBLY of the Common Wealth of Pennsylvania, palled the Twentieth Day of March, in the Year One Thousand Seven Hundred and Seventy Seven. Dated the Tenth Day of April, A.D. 1777
    E I G H T S H I L L I N G S. ” (signed by Levi Budo) ?

    However I am not sure its an original paper currency of that time or a counterfeit currency. I can not see a water mark or ABCs at any of the corners.
    However I am not sure its and original

  6. What was the address in Philadelphia of John Dunlap’s printing company?

  7. Sarah Ector Dunlap married John Dunlap sr. Strabane Tyrone County Ireland. She was the mother of John Dunlap (Printer in Phila). Her father noted as James Ector. Looking for any info on this lineage, Ector, in Ireland.

    • Ector – Staff can help with your genealogical questions, just submit a question at and provide what information you have and what information you are looking for.

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