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

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) //www.loc.gov/item/2003576546/

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.

One Comment

  1. Arianna Wills
    April 15, 2020 at 4:43 pm

    Lovely work

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