Printing Your Way into History in Boston

Printing. People are able to create all sorts of documents, choose fonts, make layout on computers, and share these quickly — across the world if they so choose.

In some ways it has not been that long since Johannes Gutenberg invented the first moveable type and printing press in the western world (the Chinese had gotten to this a bit sooner) in the fifteenth century. In other ways, those centuries may seem a very long time. Either way, few people today have the chance to see handset printing, how ideas and information were shared through centuries.

printing by edes gill boston

When you are in the Boston area, you can see how this sort of printing is done.

Printing allowed people to share ideas with many people at the same time, and over time and across distance. In the colonies which were to become the United States, printing presses and the printers who ran them were a vital part of sharing news and ideas — and eventually, in 1776, printing one of those ideas that became the basis of a new country, the Declaration of Independence of the United States.

printing case with type edes gill faneuil hall

Faneuil Hall in Boston was built in 1742. In the years since it has been the site of meetings and debates (including ones about taxes imposed on the colonies by the British crown), Speakers have appeared, including Frederick Douglass and Barack Obama. Part of the building’s original purpose was also as a market where people could purchase food and other goods. Though the goods and the foodstuffs have changed, that is still true. It is also a base for Park Service rangers, who will let you in on aspects of Faneuil Hall’s history.

faneuil hall bsoton exterior

Faneuil Hall continues to be, as the National Park Service history of the place puts it, a marketplace for the exchange of goods and the exchange of ideas. There are meeting spaces on the upper floors and retail shops and places to eat on the main floor, and just behind the main hall in separate buildings is the flourishing center of shops and restaurants that is Quincy Market.

printing history faneuil hall boston massachusetts

There’s also a place where you can step right into history and learn how printing was done in colonies, and how the Declaration of Independence was first printed in Boston. This is a fairly new addition to what goes on at Faneuil Hall. A corner of the main hall is home the printers and printing press of Edes & Gill.

pritning documents and tools boston edes gill

There, historians who are well trained in the art of printing as it was in colonial days tell stories, demonstrate type, ink, tools, and the press, answer questions, and print documents. You can purchase documents if you wish, but there’s no cost to watch the historic interpreters at work and participate in questions and discussions.

You might learn, for instance

Hand set type was, at this time in history set letter by letter
Words were formed in a tool called a composition or compositor’s stick
These words were set backward (think about that for a minute)
There were 9,000 characters in the Boston broadside of the Declaration of Independence
The type, cast in lead, may have been made in Holland
Recreations of those characters are used at the press today
Paper in colonial days was generally made from rags; wood based paper didn’t come into common use until around 1840
Printers often made their own ink, which they applied to type like this

print inker faneuil hall boston

John Edes and Benjamin Gill were the owners of an 18th century press which printed the Boston Gazette newspaper and other materials such as cards, maps and broadsides
There were other printing presses across the colonies, about 100 by 1776

printing faneuil hall boston edes gill

Printing was slow work, and physically demanding: type had to be set into words, and then into lines, then into page forms, inked, locked into a frame in the press, and then pressure applied to the press to transfer the inked words to paper. Then everything had to be taken apart — and the page had to dry, and the letters had to be sorted, so work on the next item could begin.

Demanding work, indeed, and one that allowed ideas to be shared in new ways.

You may also want to know that Edes & Gill is a non profit organization which is funded by donations and by sales of the items it prints.

Wondering about how word got from place to place and how mail worked in colonial times? A visit to the US National Postal Museum will help you learn about that.

Photographs by Kerry Dexter. Thank you for respecting copyright.

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