Touch Authentic History – Real Colonial Newspapers Shared On Tour!

Unlike any other tour guide in Boston, Ben Edwards shares authentic colonial newspapers printed in revolutionary Boston during his tours. If you book a tour with Ben, you will literally hold history in your hands as specific sites along the tour route are brought to life with these primary source documents. Because colonial newspapers — like the issue of the Massachusetts Spy from November 11, 1773, pictured above — were the only form of mass media in their day, they served as the trumpet for revolutionaries such as Samuel Adams.  In fact, many historians say colonial newspapers actually caused the American Revolutionary War.

Several newspapers from Ben’s personal collection are shown at right. These represent the type of papers you will see during your private walking tour. From top to bottom, they include 1) the Boston Gazette from September 16, 1771 with a masthead engraved by Paul Revere. (The masthead of the Massachusetts Spy shown above was also engraved by Revere.); 2) an ad for Paul Revere’s gold and silversmith shop printed in a Boston newspaper in 1787; 3) a mention of the reading of the Declaration of Independence in Boston in a Philadelphia newspaper from 1776; 4) coverage of the Boston Tea Party in a London magazine from 1774; 5) coverage of the Battle of Bunker Hill in a Philadelphia paper from 1775; 6) mention of poet Phillis Wheatley in a London magazine from 1773; and 7) an issue of the Boston Gazette from April 10, 1775.

Ben also discusses colonial print shops once located along the tour route and mentions some of Boston’s early printers. The one most people remember is Benjamin Franklin. In 1718, at the age of 12, Benjamin Franklin began working as an apprentice at a print shop in Boston owned by his brother James. The shop, located in Dorset Alley just off Queen Street, was typical of  the print shops of the period. It contained an English Common Press that James had recently purchased in London and a few fonts of type. At this shop, James Franklin began publishing the New England Courant in 1721.

Like most early colonial papers, the New England Courant was published weekly and had a limited distribution. Isaiah Thomas in The History of Printing in America tells us that the earliest newspapers in America (1704-1755) had press runs (total quantity printed) of around 300 or less. By 1765 that number had increased to between 600 and 800.

A primary source for the news gathered each week was ship’s captains who provided stories and also passed along copies of papers they picked up during their journeys. As a result, much of the news from outside was several weeks or many months old. Compare this to today’s instant access to news 24/7 via cable TV and the internet! Another source was hand written letters to the editor from individuals in other colonies. These letters contained personal accounts of major events they had witnessed.

Just a short distance from today’s Old State House, a young Benjamin Franklin set type, operated the printing press and sold printing in the streets of Boston. Here is a glimpse at how Ben and other printers produced newspapers in colonial America in the eighteenth-century.

Every letter of every word of news had to be hand-set before the physical printing process could begin. Typesetting in the eighteenth-century was time consuming. The lead metal type was housed in a set of four wooden trays or type cases containing partitions for each character. Capital letters were kept in the upper two cases and small letters in the lower two, thus the names “upper case” and “lower case” letters.

The appropriate letters that matched the copy were selected and placed in a composing stick until they reached the set line length. They were then transferred to a tray called a galley. This process continued, letter by letter and line by line until the galley was full. The galley was inked and a rough proof called a galley proof made so any type errors could be corrected. Compare this manual process to today’s simple and efficient desktop publishing programs we are all familiar with!

After the galley was complete it was secured or tied off and placed on a flat marble imposing stone where an iron frame or chase was placed around it to lock everything into place. The pages locked into the chase were known as the form.

The printing process was accomplished by placing the form in a wooden box or coffin on the bed of the press. The type was inked by the apprentice who, using two leather-covered balls with sticks attached, picked up ink and distributed it to the type.

The eighteenth-century paper used was made of linen rags and had an uneven surface. It was placed on a wooden frame hinged to the coffin called the tympan and dampened with water. Another wooden frame called a fisket hinged to the tympan was folded over on top of the paper and the whole was folded again on top of the inked type. A handle was turned to roll the coffin under a thick piece of hardwood called the platen.

The platen was suspended from a large screw that hung from a horizontal piece of wood known as the head. The screw was enclosed in a box called a hose which passed through another horizontal piece of wood known as a till. To print a sheet, the pressman put a lever bar into the screw and pulled it so it pressed the platen onto the coffin. This pressure squeezed the paper against the inked type.

The entire process was repeated over and over until the printer produced enough copies of the first form. The form was changed and the process was then used again to print new forms on side one as well as side two of the sheets. An average production speed on an English Common Press was around 200 sheets per hour, with two pulls (the printing of two forms) on one side of each sheet.

A full day’s work for the colonial printer can be accomplished today in minutes on a modern commercial offset press.

If you’re interested in early newspapers, Ben shares more of his collection online with tour participants. The papers are supported by interactive articles and multimedia.