The Crazy Story Behind the First Book Published in the (Future) United States

Library of Congress // Public Domain
Library of Congress // Public Domain

An escape from England, an indentured servant with a mysterious past, and an untimely death while crossing the Atlantic. While these might sound like plot points for the latest historical spy thriller, they’re actually real events related to The Bay Psalm Book, a Puritan hymnal—the first book printed in what would become the United States.

LEAVING ENGLAND FOR AN UNCERTAIN NEW WORLD

Reverend Jose Glover was approaching his 40th birthday, and he was in a rut. For several years, he had been Rector of Sutton, and he found himself increasingly drawn to the Puritans, a group that believed the Church of England, which had broken from the Catholic Church in 1534, was still too Catholic. So in 1634, a year after King Charles I had ordered clergymen to read the Book of Sports (which largely served as an anti-Puritan text detailing acceptable Sunday activities) to their congregations, Glover was, along with dozens of others, suspended for refusing to read it [PDF]. Not long after, he resigned and was out of a job altogether.

He decided that the Massachusetts Bay Colony was the change he was looking for. Settled just a few years earlier, it was a haven for Puritans escaping persecution from the more establishment elements within the Church of England. Although it was risky to leave his life and livelihood behind for an uncertain future, the New World offered religious freedom and a fresh start.

To finance his move across the Atlantic, Glover gave sermons and raised cash from both parishioners and friends in England and Holland. With the funds, he bought a press, type, paper, ink, and other supplies he would need to start a printing press in Massachusetts Bay. (Why he chose printing as his new profession is unknown.) Before leaving for New England, Glover also hired Stephen Daye, an indentured locksmith in his forties, to come with him.

Like many parts of this story, why Glover hired a locksmith to help him establish a printing press is a mystery, and not enough is known of Daye's past to make things any clearer. Some historians have speculated that Daye was a descendent of renowned Protestant printer John Daye and worked as an apprentice in a London printing shop. Other scholars, though, argue that there’s no evidence that Daye was related to the famous printer or that he was ever a printer’s apprentice. It’s even possible that Daye was hired exclusively as a locksmith, and was forced into the printing business by what happened next.

In 1638, Glover set sail for Massachusetts Bay on a ship called the John of London, traveling with his wife, Elizabeth Harris Glover, their children, Daye and his family, a few servants, and the printing press. But Glover never made it: En route, he caught a bad fever and died.

His plans to set up a printing press didn’t perish with him, though. After the John of London arrived in Massachusetts in the late summer of 1638, Elizabeth fulfilled her late husband’s wishes, establishing a print shop in a house on what is today Cambridge’s Holyoke Street, near the college that later became Harvard University. It would become known as the Cambridge Press.

The business partners were an odd pair: Daye was a barely literate locksmith, Elizabeth a widow with no business experience. We know that Daye’s teenaged son, Matthew, worked at the press, but it’s unclear how they ran the press or how they split their duties—some scholars credit Stephen Daye as America’s first publisher, while others call Elizabeth the “Mother of the American Press”—but run it they did. For their first job, they printed “The Freeman’s Oath,” a large sheet of paper with Massachusetts Bay’s citizenship oath, in early 1639. They then printed a pamphlet that was an abridged, primitive version of an almanac.

After that, they tackled The Bay Psalm Book.

MAKING AMERICA'S FIRST BOOK

In 1620, the Pilgrims who sailed on the Mayflower most likely brought Bibles with them, but there's no definitive evidence about which versions (or how many) they actually brought. By the 1630s, most colonists in the Massachusetts Bay Colony were worshipping with various hymnals they had brought from England, including a 1562 edition of The Whole Book of Psalms. Dozens of members of the Massachusetts clergy, including John Eliot and Richard Mather, wanted a hymnal that more accurately conveyed the true, literal word of God. In the clergy’s view, the 1562 psalm book was outdated and poorly translated from the original Hebrew.

To feel closer to God in their strange new land, Eliot and Mather wanted a new book that didn’t remind them of the religious constraints they faced in England. So in 1636, they began translating Hebrew psalms into English, creating The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre, colloquially called The Bay Psalm Book. When it came time to print the tome, they turned to the only press in town: Elizabeth and Daye's.

Elizabeth spent £33 (approximately $7000 today) to publish the book, a simple arrangement of 37 sheets bound with calf-skin. The book (which you can read here) was rife with spelling and spacing errors, due to technological limitations and Elizabeth and Daye’s lack of typographical training. Still, despite its awkwardness, it was a smash hit. The Cambridge Press sold all 1700 first edition copies of The Bay Psalm Book, and Puritan congregations used the book to worship God and teach children to memorize the psalms. The book was sold at the Cambridge Press’s office and at Hezekiah Usher’s bookstore in Cambridge, the first bookstore in New England.

After publishing The Bay Psalm Book, Elizabeth and Daye published a 1641 almanac, a catechism prayer, and a set of Massachusetts laws. But after Elizabeth’s death in 1643 and Daye’s retirement in late 1646, one of Daye’s sons took over the press, and it was most likely dismantled in the mid-1700s.

Today, just 11 first editions of The Bay Psalm Book survive, and they have broken sales records at auctions. Thanks to Elizabeth and Daye’s work, The Bay Psalm Book helped New World settlers feel close to God during a time of uncertainty and helped usher in a uniquely American identity and literary tradition, distinct from England. Not bad for a tiny book published by a widow and an indentured servant.

Winston Churchill Once Got a Doctor's Note So That He Could Drink Alcohol in Prohibition-Era America

 Fox Photos/Getty Images
Fox Photos/Getty Images

Winston Churchill never went long without pouring himself a drink, even while traveling throughout Prohibition-era America. As producer and photographer Meredith Frost pointed out on Twitter recently, the future British prime minister and World War II leader got a doctor’s note in January 1932 which claimed he could drink an “indefinite” quantity of alcohol—federal laws be damned—to facilitate his “post-accident convalescence.” He had been struck by a car while on a speaking tour in New York in December 1931, which caused him chest pain in the immediate aftermath. He also suffered bouts of depression amid the aftershock, and it reportedly took him two months to fully recover.

Unfortunately for Churchill, Prohibition didn’t end until 1933. In fact, last week (December 5) marked the 85th anniversary of the repeal. He didn’t let that stop him, though. He admitted he once went to a speakeasy—"as a social investigator," of course.

This wasn’t the only time that Churchill refused to play by the rules insofar as alcohol was concerned. Once, after being told he shouldn’t drink or smoke during a meeting with a Muslim king, he replied through an interpreter, “My rule of life prescribed as an absolute sacred rite smoking cigars and also the drinking of alcohol before, after, and if need be during all meals and in the intervals between them.”

However, several historical accounts have argued that Churchill's drinking was for show and that he wasn’t actually an alcoholic. “It has been said that Winston used alcohol as a prop to his persona, rather like the cigars and pet bulldog, and that he rarely got monkey-arsed, or reached the falling-down, slurred-words state,” author Robert Sellers writes in An A-Z of Hellraisers: A Comprehensive Compendium of Outrageous Insobriety. “Total inebriation was something he abhorred, which says much for what must have been a steel constitution.”

The Christmas Book Flood: Iceland’s Literature-Loving Holiday Tradition

iStock.com/Viktor_Gladkov
iStock.com/Viktor_Gladkov

In Iceland, the most popular Christmas gifts aren't the latest iProducts or kitchen gadgets. They're books. Each year, Iceland celebrates what’s known as “Jólabókaflóðið:” the annual Yule Book Flood.

The holiday season is the Black Friday of the Icelandic publishing world—but it’s not just about one day. According to Reader’s Digest, at the beginning of November, each household in Iceland gets a copy of the Bokatidindi, the Iceland Publishers Association’s catalog of all the books that will be published that year, giving residents a chance to pick out holiday books for their friends and family. September to November marks Icelandic publishers’ biggest season, and many sell the majority of their yearly stock leading up to Christmas. Even grocery stores become major booksellers during the Book Flood season.

The Jólabókaflóðið (pronounced YO-la-bok-a-flothe) tradition dates back to post-World War II economic policies. Iceland separated from Denmark in 1918, and didn’t become a fully autonomous republic until 1944. During the Great Depression, the country created a rigid, intricate system of import restrictions, and its protectionist policies continued after the war. High inflation and strict rations on imported goods made it difficult for Icelanders to get their hands on many products. The one imported product that was relatively easy to get? Paper. As a result, books became the nation’s default gift purchase, and they still are, more than half a century later.

The "flood" in Christmas Book Flood has more to do with the deluge of books hitting bookstores than it does a flood of books flowing onto individual bookshelves. To take advantage of the tradition, most hardback books published in Iceland come out in the months leading up to Christmas, when Icelanders will be purchasing them for friends and family. (Cheaper paperbacks often come out a few months later, since people are more apt to buy those for themselves rather than their loved ones, according to The Reykjavik Grapevine’s Hildur Knútsdóttir.)

While family traditions vary from household to household, most Icelanders unwrap a book on December 24, according to Reader’s Digest. Some people get a book for every member of their family, while others do a swap exchange where everyone brings one title and everyone gets to pick one from the pile. After the exchange, many people cozy up with their new volume and get reading, preferably in bed, with chocolate.

As Icelandic writer Alda Sigmundsdóttir explained in a blog post in 2008, people in Iceland “will typically describe the pinnacle of enjoyment as lying in bed eating konfekt [filled chocolates] and reading one of the books they received under the tree. Later, at the slew of Christmas parties that inevitably follow, the Christmas books will be a prominent topic of conversation, and post-Yule the newspapers are filled with evaluations of which books had the best and worst titles, best and worst covers, etc.” Sounds like a pretty good tradition to us.

It’s not surprising that Iceland places such high importance on giving and receiving books. The country reads and publishes more books per capita than any other nation in the world, and one in 10 Icelanders have published a book themselves. (There’s an Icelandic adage, “ad ganga med bok I maganum,” that means “everyone gives birth to a book.” Well, technically it means “everyone has a book in their stomach,” but same idea.)

But the glut of books that flood the Icelandic market during the latter months of the year may not be as completely joyful as it sounds, some critics warn—at least not when it comes to the stability of the publishing market. Iceland is a nation of just 338,000 people, and there are more books than there are people to buy them. Some publishers, faced with a lack of space to store the unsold books, have had to resort to destroying unpurchased stock at the end of the holiday season. But marketing books outside of Yuletime is a relatively budding practice, one that Icelandic presses are still adapting to. It’s hard to beat the prospect of curling up after Christmas dinner with a freshly opened book and a bunch of chocolates, after all.

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