Printing by Authority
The arrival of printing in England in the 1470s led to the grant of a monopoly over the new technology to the Stationers' Company of London by the Tudor dynasty. With the rise of the Stuart kings after 1600, that monopoly was transformed into a Licensing Act. The act gave the Crown the ability to increase imprint production while retaining control over the printers. Such controls became the standard employed by the succession of royal and parliamentary governments seen in England's seventeenth-century conflicts—the license gave an authority to print, usually in service to the grantor. Hence, the ability of print materials to shape opinion and move contemporaneous events was well known by the 1680s when the first attempt to bring a printing press into Virginia was made.
This situation had changed by 1730, however, when the first authorized press arrived in Virginia. The rapid physical and demographic growth of the colony, alongside changes to Virginia's laws accompanying the expansion of chattel slavery, meant that information distribution by print materials had become essential; no longer could the traditional manuscript transmission of information keep up with these transformations. The assembly was pressed repeatedly in the 1720s by county court petitions asking for printed copies of the colony's laws; each time the matter was tabled. But in February 1728, William Parks, printer to the Maryland colony, proposed publishing a collection of the Virginia laws then in force. This time the assembly agreed to the proposition, asking further that he also print the laws of each assembly session. Needs, it seems, now outweighed any remaining fears about bringing printing to Virginia.
The Printing Monopoly
Yet his new Williamsburg office also produced imprints that became standards in Virginia, driving the growth in demand for nongovernment imprints among an ever-enlarging audience. From 1730 on, Parks produced his annual Virginia Almanack and from 1736, he published the colony's first newspaper, the Virginia Gazette. By 1750, he had also produced a series of imprints that were each the first in America: a manual for county court justices, a book of recipes and household hints, and a nonprofessional's medical handbook. Beside these were the required set of session laws for each General Assembly session, the assembly's journals, and the proposed volume of the collected laws of the colony issued in 1733. To sustain this production, he built a paper mill, the first in the American South. Through this all, Virginia continued to grow and change, which convinced the assembly to commission a new collection of the laws in force in 1749. Parks rose to the challenge, embarking for England for fresh supplies to finish the task. But he died en route, leaving the unfinished project to his foreman, William Hunter.
The Scotsman Royle proved to be the most controversial of the early, authorized Virginia printers; his term would also be the briefest, just over four years. From his start in 1761, Royle maintained a close relationship with Lieutenant Governor Francis Fauquier, and pursued the same obedient course that marked the resident years of Parks and Hunter. Unfortunately for him, such obedience was fast falling out of favor with many of his customers and with their representatives in the House of Burgesses. Yet the Virginia Gazette showed little evidence of the debates then raging in the General Assembly while under Royle's care. He did publish, as a contractor and not an editor, several pamphlets written from both sides of the Parsons' Cause controversy. But when the House of Burgesses ordered him to publish copies of their Stamp Act Resolves in 1765, Royle boldly refused, probably at Fauquier's order. By generating enmity in the Assembly, he also sowed the seeds of competition. The leaders of the anti–Stamp Act faction sent their resolves to William Rind in Maryland for publication, and then invited the printer to move to Williamsburg and take up Royle's commission. Royle's death in January 1766 kept the printing monopoly alive only briefly. His shop foreman, Alexander Purdie, became the de facto public printer; but once Rind established himself in Williamsburg, the Assembly granted him the post instead. Purdie quickly went into partnership with John Dixon, and refocused his efforts on expanding the nongovernment side of the business. Thus, the Virginia printing trade was never again in the hands of a single person; the printing monopoly was dead.
The Williamsburg Printing Office
In the printing monopoly era, the work of Williamsburg's press centered on generating government documents. Whenever the General Assembly met, the office regularly published its journals. When it recessed, the office published the laws that the assembly had just enacted. If a major address was made during the session, the printer was usually ordered to print that also, and if the assembly was impressed with a sermon preached to members during their meeting, it would often order that published as well. Between sessions, the printing office produced blank legal forms for official use, ranging from proclamations issued as broadsides, to warrants and commissions printed on smaller sheets, to paper currency published several notes to a page. The office's bookbinder also produced blank books, ruled and unruled, for the use of government officials.
Alongside this government work, the press issued imprints such as the Virginia Gazette that reflected the interests of an increasingly diverse public. As a whole, these imprints fell into three broad genres: informational, religious, and belle-letters. Naturally, informational imprints dominated the office's production, growing from 65 percent to 80 percent of the work over time. While informational imprints largely consisted of the General Assembly's journals and session laws, they also included the Gazette, the Almanack, and a variety of unique, descriptive texts on medical, monetary, and household affairs. The remaining production was split between religious and belle-letters, with religious texts slowly being supplanted by literary works over the period. Yet both of those genres were for the most part homegrown, so to speak, the handiwork of Virginia authors. Religious texts, mostly sermons, were an office forte in the Parks and Hunter years, while literature moved ahead in the Royle years.
These differing interests were aided and abetted by the office's increasingly varied offering of books imported from Great Britain. From the beginning, a trade in unbound book-sheets was a part of the business. Such made the employment of a bookbinder in the shop less of a burden on the operation by providing him steady work. Hunter's English sojourn helped accelerate the growth of bookselling by building connections with London suppliers. And during the Royle years, the office benefited from his connections to new supply sources in Edinburgh and Glasgow. So the shop's need to produce imprints for local retail sales, which kept the press from idleness, could be reduced. Instead, the press could now focus its work on producing imprints for a wholesale trade among the multiplying number of country stores that emerged after 1720—the oft-derided "Scottish merchant" invasion. By 1765, the printing office's principal nongovernment revenue came from this wholesale operation, led by bulk sales of the annual Virginia Almanack. Moreover, its chief source of cash derived from retail sales of blank forms, mostly the bonds and indentures used by those same merchants, allowing the shop to become a bank, providing cash for its customers.
A Virginia Newspaper
Williamsburg's Virginia Gazette was the most visible nongovernmental imprint issuing from the printing office; at the same time, the Gazette was the imprint with the least visible connection to government. Parks began its publication in 1736 with the government's blessing because the Gazette readily served as a vehicle for official notices to the general public. The printer could employ whatever space the government did not require each week to his own ends, usually for his profit. When tied to the concurrent growth of the merchant trade, this license meant one-third to one-half of the space in the Gazette each week would be taken up by paid advertising. Moreover, those ads promoted the same stores that were buying the office's imprints at wholesale for eventual resale to their customers. Hence, the Gazette promoted two complementary revenue flows into the printing office.
Those flows were important, just as was the government contract, because readers of the Gazette were not always subscribers to it; furthermore, subscribers often did not actually pay for the newspapers they received. Such was the nature of all colonial-era newspapers. Cash was always scarce, and debts were paid generally by "exchanges in kind" of goods and services, often called barter. This hard reality created an intricate and growing web of credit relationships across the Virginia landscape that then extended to Britain. Often, a Virginia planter's ability to pay his debts, including one for a subscription to the Gazette, depended on a chain of account drafts from one merchant to another. Any break in the chain left those down the line bereft of payment. When one considers that many planters were paid but once per year—after receipt of their crop in Europe—any breaks in the chain could easily lead to debts being left unpaid for years on end.
For newspaper publishers in colonial America such delay could spell ruin, especially if the defaults multiplied after a bad year for whatever commodity was produced in that colony. The continuing profitability of Virginia tobacco before 1765 meant that the Williamsburg printers were less troubled by this problem than were their peers to the north. But their awareness of the problem among the tight network of colonial printers evidently impelled the diversification of the Williamsburg printing office. Indeed, the Revolutionary-era office of William Rind suffered from a lack of diversification and an overreliance on the fluctuating income of his Gazette, as would other printers in Virginia in the years after the Revolutionary War (1775–1783).
This redistributive process was accelerated by the reforms to the colonial postal system wrought by Hunter and Franklin in the 1750s. As newspaper publishers themselves, each man understood the need for exchanges of news to keep their weekly papers viable. Consequently, they authorized free passage of newspapers through the postal system from one publisher to another, with the condition that the recipient of a paper returned the favor by dispatching a copy of his paper to the sender. This was relatively easy to accomplish, as newspapers in colonial America were simple one-sheet, four-page affairs, which made for a small parcel in transit. But that small size also meant that the space available in a Gazette was limited each week. Lengthy articles were often serialized to keep them from claiming the entire space in any one issue. Accordingly, what one sees in any particular Gazette can be recognized as being important either to the editor of the paper, or to the contributor paying for the item's insertion, or both.
February 1683 - William Nuthead completes proof copies of the laws of the autumn of 1682 meeting of the General Assembly. He is ordered by Governor Thomas Culpeper to cease and desist from publishing them.
February 22, 1728 - William Parks proposes to the Virginia General Assembly that he print the colony's collected laws. The assembly agrees and offers further work.
October 1730 - William Parks publishes the first edition of the Virginia Almanack, intended for the Chesapeake region in 1731.
June 10, 1732 - The General Assembly formally fixes William Parks's salary at £120 with the title "Printer to the Colony."
1733 - With help from George Webb of New Kent County, William Parks publishes A Collection of All the Acts of Assembly, Now in Force, In the Colony of Virginia in Williamsburg, the first compilation of Virginia laws.
1734 - William Parks publishes Every Man His Own Doctor: or, The Poor Planter's Physician by John Tennent, the first guide to domestic medicine printed in America.
August 6, 1736 - William Parks publishes the inaugural number of the Virginia Gazette, the colony's first newspaper.
1742 - William Parks publishes the first edition of The Compleat Housewife: or, Accomplish'd Gentlewoman's Companion by the late Eliza Smith, the first cookbook printed in America, which saw numerous later editions.
Spring 1744 - William Parks opens a paper mill on Archer's Hope Creek outside of Williamsburg, the first such mill in British America south of Pennsylvania.
July 1750 - William Hunter suspends publication of the Virginia Gazette until the estate of William Parks is probated.
April 1751 - William Hunter completes William Parks's last commission, the revised Laws of Virginia, two months before its deadline.
March 12, 1752 - William Hunter is formally appointed as public printer of Virginia at £300 per year.
August 10, 1753 - William Hunter is appointed with Benjamin Franklin as "His Majesty's Deputy Postmasters General for all His Dominions in North America." Hunter directly oversees all of the postal routes south of Annapolis.
June 20, 1756 - William Hunter leaves for England; during his absence, his printing office is run by John Stretch until July 1759.
July 5, 1759 - William Hunter returns to Virginia after a 37-month absence in England, where he recuperated after a period of ill health. This is also probably the date Alexander Purdie and Joseph Royle, Hunter's new office staff, arrive in Virginia.
November 5, 1761 - Joseph Royle reports William Hunter's death to the General Assembly; the body formally confirms him as the colony's public printer.
January 26, 1766 - Joseph Royle dies in Williamsburg. Alexander Purdie temporarily succeeds him as colony's public printer.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Rawson, D. Printing in Colonial Virginia. (2012, January 20). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Printing_in_Colonial_Virginia.
- MLA Citation:
Rawson, David. "Printing in Colonial Virginia." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 20 Jan. 2012. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: May 3, 2011 | Last modified: January 20, 2012
Contributed by David Rawson, an adjunct professor of history at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.