(The following is a story featured in the Library of Congress Gazette, the staff newsletter, written by editor Mark Hartsell.)
The printing press that helped spread world-changing ideas of revolution, liberty and self-governance through early America grew from a humble beginning: a small, error-filled book of religious devotion, produced by a locksmith for settlers forging a home in the North American wilderness.
A new Library of Congress exhibition explores early printing in the American colonies, from that first book to the broadsides, pamphlets, newspapers and books that, over the next 150 years, helped shape a revolution and a new nation.
“First Among Many: The Bay Psalm Book and Early Moments in American Printing” opens June 4 and runs through Jan. 2.
The exhibition, located in the Jefferson Building’s South Gallery, is made possible through the support of philanthropist David M. Rubenstein, chairman of the Library’s private-sector advisory group, the Madison Council.
At the exhibition’s heart are two copies of the Bay Psalm Book, a small volume with a big title and a historic distinction: “The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre” stands as the first book published in what now is the United States.
One copy was drawn from the Library’s Rare Book and Special Collections Division; the other, on display through Aug. 8, belongs to Rubenstein.
“The Library is extremely grateful to David Rubenstein for sharing his extraordinary copy of the Bay Psalm Book,” Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said. “The celebration of this book is the impetus for the Library’s exhibition. The Bay Psalm Book is a book of many firsts – the first English-language book in North America, the first book of American poetry and the first instance in a long and vital history of printing in America.”
The exhibition also showcases more than 30 other treasures that followed the Bay Psalm off the printing presses of early America: among them, the Dunlap Broadside of the Declaration of Independence; “Poor Richard’s Almanack” by Benjamin Franklin; “Common Sense” by Thomas Paine; “The Federalist,” essays by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay; “The Power of Sympathy,” the first novel printed in the colonies; and the Algonquian Indian Bible, the first complete Bible printed in the Western Hemisphere.
“It’s meant to be more than, say, just a string of pearls,” said Mark Dimunation, chief of Rare Book. “This exhibit really tells the story of how printing is introduced to America and how it actually participates in the growth and development of revolutionary America. It’s different than in other places.”
Still, the start and heart of the exhibition is the Bay Psalm Book, a small volume of verse – meant for singing in worship services – produced in 1640 by English settlers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Creating such a book in that time and place – the colony was founded in this New World wilderness only a dozen years earlier – was an enormous project.
Printing a book required the settlers to import a press, paper and type. They also had to translate 150 psalms from the original Hebrew, then cast the new text into rhyming verse suitable for singing. The printer, Stephen Daye, was a locksmith just apprenticing in this new trade.
“These are very primitive conditions. They’re not far into settlement. They’re still building buildings,” Dimunation said. “It’s a huge undertaking.”
The result, in some ways, wasn’t great.
The print job was overinked, the typesetting coarse, the text rife with typographical errors and inconsistent spellings (is it “psalm” or psalme”?).
The verse frequently is awkward, as in the famous Psalm 23:
The Lord to mee a shepheard is,
want therefore shall not I,
Hee in the folds of tender-grasse,
doth cause mee downe to lie. …
Yea though in valley of deaths shade
I walk, none ill I’le feare:
Because thou art with mee, thy rod,
And staffe my comfort are.
“None of that carries any real merit as criticism of the book,” Dimunation said, considering the historical importance of the volume.
The Bay Psalm actually wasn’t the first piece printed on that new press in Massachusetts Bay Colony. Daye earlier had produced “Oath of a Freeman,” a loyalty oath he printed as a broadside in 1639. No copies survive.
The Bay Psalm is the first book, and the first surviving document, to be printed in what’s now the United States. And the first book of poetry. And the first piece of printed music: In the ninth and final printing of the book, music was added to accompany the text.
Though some 1,700 copies were produced over those nine printings, only 11 survive today – a consequence of constant use and the passage of time.
“They’re very scarce,” Dimunation said. “They have the same characteristic that children’s literature has: They’re used so frequently that they get used completely, get used up.”
The Library acquired its copy, still in the original binding, in the 1960s. The book lacks the original title page, bearing instead an old calligraphic facsimile that, Dimunation said, frequently fools viewers into thinking it’s the real thing. The volume also is missing 12 pages. Years before the Library acquired the book, those pages were removed to complete a copy now held by the New York Public Library.
Rubenstein purchased his copy at auction in 2013 – the first time in more than 66 years a copy of the Bay Psalm was sold on the open market. That copy is complete and includes the original title page – one of only seven surviving copies that do so.
Around those two volumes in the exhibition, Dimunation said, are some of the great pieces of Americana: two printings of the Declaration of Independence; an extraordinarily rare Thomas Jefferson pamphlet, “A Summary View of Rights of British America,” annotated in Jefferson’s own hand; “Common Sense”; and “The Federalist,” also annotated by Jefferson.
“You could teach the Revolution with these books alone,” Dimunation said.
But it started with the humble, inelegant volume produced by a small group of settlers carving out a new home in the New World, for use in daily acts of devotion.
“It’s an ordinary book, in a way, especially in that period,” Dimunation said. “To them, this would be quite ordinary. To us, this book is hardly ordinary.”
An online version of the exhibition will be made available at www.loc.gov/exhibits/.