Recently, on one of my trips to the library to roam the stacks, one of the staff directed me to what it had never occured to me to look for, though I should have suspected something of the sort was there. Tucked away with a bunch of other old law books is An Act For the Relief of Debtors, with Respect to the Imprisonment of their Persons, enacted by the legislature of Nova Scotia in 1752. No, no, I’m not having trouble managing my debts (as I am a literary publisher, I can understand why that thought might cross your mind). My interest is in the publication history of this document. This, it seems, is the oldest piece of Canadian printing held by my local university library, and there’s not much earlier printed Canadiana to be had anywhere.
In October 1751, Bartholomew Green, Jr. – a member of the storied Green dynasty of Boston printers – shipped a press and a supply of type to Halifax where he planned to establish a press. He died before he could even get unpacked. John Bushell – Green’s former partner in Bushell, Allen and Green, printing at Boston – took up the Halifax venture, issuing its first publication – the Halifax Gazette – on 23 March 1752. His was the first printshop established in Canada and the only press in Halifax until his death in 1761.
The typesetting and presswork of An Act For the Relief of Debtors well demonstrate Bushell’s skill and experience. This document indicates that his shop was well appointed typographically, with five or more sizes of Baroque-flavoured roman and italic types used in this publication, as well as a suite of typographic ornaments. These would have been supplied by William Caslon’s London foundry. I would suppose these were new fonts ordered by Green and not stock he had in use in previous Boston ventures. The type’s impression in he paper is crisp and shows little sign of wear; clearly Bushell was not so busy between his first publication in March and the production of this act in December to have noticeably worn down his type.
The typesetting is first class – simple, no nonsense, with an excellent sense of scale and optical balance. If only we could say the same of today’s government documents. Bushell’s use of ornaments is restrained, but adds a nice colour and levity to the opening and closing of the Act. Notice the insertion of two question marks in the line of flowers (above the word ‘Printer’ in the colophon). For the life of me, I have no idea what that’s all about.
The flowers also encircle the italic cap ‘W’ which opens the Act. The flowers look less crisp than the majority of the type in the book. Were they older, more modestly supplied, or more frequently used than the other types and showing wear?
I’ve been interested in the work of the Boston printers of this period for some time, photographing their books and thinking about the way they used Caslon’s type and ornaments. Take for example this sermon of ‘Great Awakening’ famed Jonathan Edwards, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, printed in Boston by Samuel Kneeland and Timothy Green in 1741, the same year they bought the Boston Gazette. The book shows many of the same earmarks and techniques as Bushell’s printing, including the Caslon types and ornaments.
Another example is a sermon of Joseph Sewall’s printed by Daniel Fowle for the Boston bookseller Daniel Henchman in 1742. (Later, in 1755, Fowle was imprisoned by the state of Massachusetts for printing a pamphlet called The Monster of Monsters. Unrepentant, on his release Fowle published a work reflecting on his time in jail entitled A Total Eclipse of Liberty and then hightailed it for New Hampshire, where founded a successful newspaper.) What do you suppose is indicated by ‘1741,2’ in the line beneath ‘SERMON’? Is it an indication of a continuance (nowadays indicated with an en dash)? Note the Caslon flowers again.
Sometimes the New England printer’s taste for ornament went a little astray. Moving inland to Philadelphia, witness this page from a publication of the American Philosophical Society, set and printed under the care of William Bradford in 1771. Though not to the extent of the Greens of Massachusetts, Bradford was also part of a line of noteworthy printers, which included his grandfather and namesake William Bradford (colonial printer at Philadelphia and New York) and his uncle Andrew Bradford (who was once Ben Franklin’s employers when he first arrived in Philadelphia). On this page, note first the capital ‘I’ erroneously used for a lowercase ‘l’ in the word ‘public’ in the fifth line from the bottom. And then note the elaborate tailpiece concocted from various sorts in the ornaments case. What would Caslon make of that?
ANDREW STEEVES ¶ PRINTER & PUBLISHER