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ISO: Colonial Printing Practice

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Hello — I am working on a short biography/history book for children that describes the night John Dunlap printed the broadside announcing independence, looking closely at each detail: the Caslon types he used, the paper, the ink. I have read everything available, or tried to. Is there someone I could speak to who might be able to suggest other titles about printing history and the conditions of the day, or someone who could direct me to a press similar to Dunlap’s so that I might try setting type and pulling a proof for myself? Thanks, Jenny Green



  1. Jenny,
    Your first and best bet would be to find a colonial press re-enactment. The prople involved are very happy to talk about what they are doing, There are several around. Colonial Williamsburg is the best-known. Where are you located? There are others in Boston, Philadelphia, West Virginia, California.

    The best reference book is Lawrence Wroth’s The Colonial Printer.

    There are softbound copies available at Alibris for as little as $3.

    Let me know where you are located and I’ll see if I can think of a re-enactor near you. I am happy that you are going to the trouble of getting your facts right!
    Best regards,
    -Steve Saxe

  2. Thank you so much. I take the accuracy very seriously. I have finished a degree in writing at Vermont College of Fine Art, where I started this non-fiction book. As a long-time journalist of Irish descent, I am interested in types and presses, and how they are connected to history. Right now I am trying to nail down exact details. We don’t really know what time the broadsheet was printed, whether there were several compositors, or whether those types were hard to round up, given the political circumstances. It does appear two examples of Caslon were used. Anyway, I could go on and on. My family members just roll their eyes. But my editor, formerly of Random House, is enthusiastic, as were my instructors in Vermont. I have The Colonial Printer and many other books. But I really feel I need that re-enactment. For instance, for all I know, Dunlap laid down the words “printed by John Dunlap,” first on the bottom, and built up rather than work his way down.

  3. Jenny, I have been the typefounder behind several of the Declaration of Independence displays . . . at the Ben Franklin print shop in Philly–they have both the Dunlap form and the Goddard form in house (I did them both) and they do a reasonable job of explaining what they do. My work also is at the Newseum in Washington, DC. (I understand a rather static display), at the Printing Museum in Provo, Utah, and also I did the Gill version for Gary Gregory in Boston.
    My particular involvement has been in explaining with pictures & text what I have done in order to recreate these forms. That is, the typecasting and composition. Of course Dunlap didn’t make his type. . . it was imported from Caslon in England. If you would like a PDF handout on the Dunlap version give me an email address and I will forward it.

    Of all those I have done, I think the Goddard one is the most interesting because it was done for the US Government in Exile (in Baltimore) and Sarah Goddard was the printer (first female printer in Maryland, etc., etc., etc.

    One observation from doing the Dunlap (I’ve done it at least five times now) is that two compositors obviously did the work (probably simultaneously. One half of the form is set rather “tight” where the second half is exceedingly spaced out. That to me is evidence that two separate persons did the work. Also, BTW, the reason they were able to get it done quickly was that Dunlap was printer for the Cont. Congress & he had the form “up in type” prior to July 4. That was the only way they could duplicate it for proofreading and revision. So he made the last revisions and then started the printing.

    Will be happy to help you out in any way possible.


  4. Hello Steve and Rich — I really appreciate your responses. I wonder if I could speak to you about this. My e-mail is Maybe we can arrange phone calls. Thanks, Jenny

  5. Jenny,

    I see that you’re well-taken care of by Steve Saxe and Rich Hopkins.

    In addition, James Green at the Library Company of Philadelphia is probably one of the more friendly and accessible experts on 18th C printing practices, bibliography and Benjamin Franklin. He can speak quite well about business practices, for example. He is less hands-on, though.

    Finally, don’t forget to talk to the folks at the American Antiquarian Society, where they have fellowships for creative writers (as well as scholarly writers), and their focus is American printed works before 1876.


  6. Thanks for these. I’ll follow up on them both.

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