First Printer

In case you were wondering about the meaning behind the name “First Printer,” a restaurant on Dunster Street in Harvard Square, there’s a very good explanation.  The first printing press in the British North America arrived in Cambridge, along with Reverend Joseph Glover, his family, and possessions, in 1638.  As was often the case back then during long, trans-Atlantic voyages, Joseph died aboard the John of London and did not reach the Colonies.

Upon arrival in Cambridge, Stephen Daye, a locksmith by trade, who came from England with the Reverend’s family, set up the printing shop.  He was under financial contract to repay the Glovers in exchange for his voyage to America.  Daye used the press to carry on Joseph Glover’s mission in the New World and set to work printing religious texts.  

Although the Spanish have set up the very first North American press in Mexico City in 1539 and printed leaflets, the Daye press became the first on the continent to produce a book – The Bay Psalm Book, followed by The Freeman’s Oath and an almanac for 1639.

Out of the 1700 original copies of The Bay Psalm Book, 11 are in existence today.  They are scattered throughout Ivy League schools’ libraries and rare book collections.  Five by seven and a half inches in size and containing 300 pages, it is an impressive achievement for such an early press.  The Bay Psalm Book went through several editions and, for over a century served as a principal prayer book in Protestant churches in the Colonies.

Harvard’s first president, Reverend Henry Dunster, thought that a printing press would be very useful for his new college, and so Elizabeth Glover did not stay a widow for long.  The two were married in 1641, combining all of their possessions, and the printing press made another trip to its new residence on the street that now carries Dunster’s name. 

After Elizabeth died only two years later, the printing press officially became the property of Harvard College, then still a small seminary.  That same year, Matthew, Stephen Daye’s son who previously worked as an apprentice, took over the printing business.  Harvard became home to the second printing press as well.  It was sent over from England in 1659, along with a professional printer, and became known for printing the Bible in the Algonkian Indian language.

The antiquated Daye press was brought to Westminster, Vermont in 1781 and continued to play an important role.  The colonists of Vermont used the press to produce The Vermont Gazette, a patriotic publication that inspired Colonists during the Revolutionary War.  Vermont was the final stop for the Daye Press and this is where it remains today, a historical artifact and the physical embodiment of ideas and hope of the first American generations.

The Daye printing press played a remarkable role in the Colonies.  Virtually surrounded by wilderness, these small New England communities relied on the printed word to work together in creating a whole new kind of a society, governed by the principles of Protestantism and democracy.

In the age of internet, as information is delivered to our screens at lightning-fast speed, we have the luxury of choosing from an unprecedented variety of media, from print publications, to internet and TV.  We have access to magazines, newspapers, and novels, on devices ranging from Kindle to smartphones.  And it is now hard to imagine a world where the only reading material was religious text printed on one wooden press.