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

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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
fun
Instead of Lighting Fireworks, People in This Chinese Village Celebrate by Flinging Molten Iron
iStock
iStock

Fireworks are a cultural symbol in China, but they weren't always easy to obtain. In a village in Yu County, China, people use a 500-year-old trick to achieve the same effect as fireworks with cheaper pyrotechnics.

This video from Great Big Story highlights the Chinese art of Da Shuhua, or splattering molten iron against walls to produce a fireworks-like shower of sparks. It started in the village of Nuanquan in the 16th century as a way for poor residents to imitate the expensive fireworks shows enjoyed by rich people in different parts of the country. Blacksmiths noticed that molten iron burst into dazzling sparks whenever it hit the ground and thought to recreate this phenomenon on a much larger scale. The townspeople loved it and began donating their scrap metal to create even grander displays.

Today, Da Shuhua is more than just a cheap alternative to regular fireworks: It's a cherished tradition to the people of Nuanquan. The village remains the only place in China to witness the art as it was done centuries ago—the people who practice it even wear the same traditional cotton and sheepskin garments to protect their skin from the 2900°F drops of metal flying through the air. As Wang De, who's been doing Da Shuhua for 30 years, says in the video below, "If you wear firefighter suits, it just doesn't feel right."

[h/t Great Big Story]

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Curie: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock
arrow
Lists
10 Radiant Facts About Marie Curie
Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Curie: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock
Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Curie: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock

Born Maria Salomea Skłodowska in Poland in 1867, Marie Curie grew up to become one of the most noteworthy scientists of all time. Her long list of accolades is proof of her far-reaching influence, but not every stride she made in the fields of chemistry, physics, and medicine was recognized with an award. Here are some facts you might not know about the iconic researcher.

1. HER PARENTS WERE TEACHERS.

Maria Skłodowska was the fifth and youngest child of two Polish educators. Her parents placed a high value on learning and insisted all their children—even their daughters—receive a quality education at home and at school. Maria received extra science training from her father, and when she graduated from high school at age 15, she was first in her class.

2. SHE HAD TO SEEK OUT ALTERNATIVE EDUCATION FOR WOMEN.

After collecting her high school diploma, Maria had hoped to study at the University of Warsaw with her sister, Bronia. Because the school didn't accept women, the siblings instead enrolled at the Flying University, a Polish college that welcomed female students. It was still illegal for women to receive higher education at the time so the institution was constantly changing locations to avoid detection from authorities. In 1891 she moved to Paris to live with her sister, where she enrolled at the Sorbonne to continue her education.

3. SHE'S THE ONLY PERSON TO WIN NOBEL PRIZES IN TWO SEPARATE SCIENCES.

Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre Curie, in 1902.
Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre Curie, in 1902.
Agence France Presse, Getty Images

In 1903, Marie Curie made history when she won the Nobel Prize in physics with her husband, Pierre, and with physicist Henri Becquerel for their work on radioactivity, making her the first woman to receive the honor. The second Nobel Prize she took home in 1911 was even more historic. With that win in the chemistry category, she became the first person of any gender to win the award twice. She remains the only person to ever receive Nobel Prizes for two different sciences.

4. SHE ADDED TWO ELEMENTS TO THE PERIODIC TABLE.

The second Nobel Prize she received recognized her discovery and research of two elements: radium and polonium. The former element was named for the Latin word for "ray" and the latter was a nod to her home country, Poland.

5. NOBEL PRIZE-WINNING RUNS IN HER FAMILY.

Marie Curie's daughter Irène Joliot-Curie, and her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, circa 1940.
Marie Curie's daughter Irène Joliot-Curie, and her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, circa 1940.
Central Press, Hulton Archive // Getty Images

When Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre, won their Nobel Prize in 1903, their daughter Irène was only 6 years old. She would grow up to follow in her parents' footsteps by jointly winning the Nobel Prize for chemistry with her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, in 1935. They were recognized for their discovery of "artificial" radioactivity, a breakthrough made possible by Irène's parents years earlier. Marie and Pierre's other son-in-law, Henry Labouisse, who married their younger daughter, Ève Curie, accepted a Nobel Prize for Peace on behalf of UNICEF, of which he was the executive director, in 1965. This brought the family's total up to five.

6. SHE DID HER MOST IMPORTANT WORK IN A SHED.

The research that won Marie Curie her first Nobel Prize required hours of physical labor. In order to prove they had discovered new elements, she and her husband had to produce numerous examples of them by breaking down ore into its chemical components. Their regular labs weren't big enough to accommodate the process, so they moved their work into an old shed behind the school where Pierre worked. According to Curie, the space was a hothouse in the summer and drafty in the winter, with a glass roof that didn't fully protect them from the rain. After the famed German chemist Wilhelm Ostwald visited the Curies' shed to see the place where radium was discovered, he described it as being "a cross between a stable and a potato shed, and if I had not seen the worktable and items of chemical apparatus, I would have thought that I was been played a practical joke."

7. HER NOTEBOOKS ARE STILL RADIOACTIVE.

Marie Curie's journals
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

When Marie was performing her most important research on radiation in the early 20th century, she had no idea the effects it would have on her health. It wasn't unusual for her to walk around her lab with bottles of polonium and radium in her pockets. She even described storing the radioactive material out in the open in her autobiography. "One of our joys was to go into our workroom at night; we then perceived on all sides the feebly luminous silhouettes of the bottles of capsules containing our products[…] The glowing tubes looked like faint, fairy lights."

It's no surprise then that Marie Curie died of aplastic anemia, likely caused by prolonged exposure to radiation, in 1934. Even her notebooks are still radioactive a century later. Today they're stored in lead-lined boxes, and will likely remain radioactive for another 1500 years.

8. SHE OFFERED TO DONATE HER MEDALS TO THE WAR EFFORT.

Marie Curie had only been a double-Nobel Laureate for a few years when she considered parting ways with her medals. At the start of World War I, France put out a call for gold to fund the war effort, so Curie offered to have her two medals melted down. When bank officials refused to accept them, she settled for donating her prize money to purchase war bonds.

9. SHE DEVELOPED A PORTABLE X-RAY TO TREAT SOLDIERS.

Marie Curie circa 1930
Marie Curie, circa 1930.
Keystone, Getty Images

Her desire to help her adopted country fight the new war didn't end there. After making the donation, she developed an interest in x-rays—not a far jump from her previous work with radium—and it didn't take her long to realize that the emerging technology could be used to aid soldiers on the battlefield. Curie convinced the French government to name her Director of the Red Cross Radiology Service and persuaded her wealthy friends to fund her idea for a mobile x-ray machine. She learned to drive and operate the vehicle herself and treated wounded soldiers at the Battle of the Marne, ignoring protests from skeptical military doctors. Her invention was proven effective at saving lives, and ultimately 20 "petite Curies," as the x-ray machines were called, were built for the war.

10. SHE FOUNDED CENTERS FOR MEDICAL RESEARCH.

Following World War I, Marie Curie embarked on a different fundraising mission, this time with the goal of supporting her research centers in Paris and Warsaw. Curie's radium institutes were the site of important work, like the discovery of a new element, francium, by Marguerite Perey, and the development of artificial radioactivity by Irène and Frederic Joliot-Curie. The centers, now known as Institut Curie, are still used as spaces for vital cancer treatment research today.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER