When you see a printed copy of the Declaration of Independence, do you consider the manner in which it was produced? What the printer's shop may have looked like, how the printing press functioned, what color the paper and ink would have been when the page was freshly-printed? For this month’s research highlight, we took a field trip to The Printing Office of Edes & Gill in Boston’s North End. We learned the nitty-gritty details of printing an 18th century broadside of the Declaration of Independence from Gary Gregory, Executive Director and Print Master of the Printing Office.
The Location: Owned by and located adjacent to Old North Church (of "One if by Land, Two if by Sea" fame), The Printing Office of Edes & Gill is a convenient stop for visitors walking the Freedom Trail. The Printing Office is inside the Clough House, a single-family home built around 1712. Clough House (at 21 Unity Street) takes its name from Ebenezer Clough, a Master Mason; out of six identical houses built by Clough, this is the one he lived in, and the only one still standing.
The Name: Why Edes & Gill? Benjamin Edes and John Gill were printing partners in Boston for twenty years. They began printing under the name "Edes and Gill" in 1755, and while their business involved books and pamphlets, their main focus was on a newspaper, The Boston Gazette; and Country Journal. As Isaiah Thomas described them in his History of Printing in America (1810), "Edes was a warm and a firm patriot, and Gill was an honest whig." When the British took over Boston in 1775, Edes evacuated to Watertown and kept printing the Boston Gazette, while Gill stayed behind and sequestered himself at home. When the British left, Edes returned to Boston, but the two men dissolved their partnership. Edes continued to print the Boston Gazette, and Gill started the Continental Journal and Weekly Advertiser.
Both Edes and Gill printed the Declaration of Independence, just not together. Gill collaborated with Edward E. Powars and Nathaniel Willis to produce a broadside, the only known broadside of the Declaration of Independence printed in Boston. The Declaration also appeared in Gill’s Continental Journal on Thursday, July 18th. Powars and Willis also printed the Declaration in their newspaper, The New-England Chronicle on the same day. Edes printed the text in the Boston Gazette, still operating out of Watertown, on Monday, July 22nd.
The Equipment: Let’s begin with the Print Master. Gary Gregory trained with master printers at Colonial Williamsburg before bringing his craft to Massachusetts, first at the Museum of Printing in North Andover, and now at the Printing Office of Edes & Gill. He is meticulous in his work and highly knowledgeable from a combination of years of research and hands-on experience. Printing reproductions of historical documents comes down to the miniscule details, sometimes quite literally; picking the correct font size, for example, or deftly spreading a very small amount of ink over a large surface of type.
The letters are first hand-carved in steel, then punched in brass and sanded to achieve the same depth on every character. Then, they are cast in lead, and the finished characters are stored in precisely organized cases; the terms "upper case" and "lower case" originated from these wooden cases. According to Gregory, quickly and correctly picking letters out of the cases becomes second nature by necessity – it would take far too long to closely examine each letter to make sure you had chosen an "e", not a "c". The type is a form of Caslon, named for typefounder William Caslon (1692/3-1766). Caslon was used for John Dunlap’s broadside and other printings of the Declaration of Independence, and the original typeface and modern revivals are still popular today; even the graphics on our website use Adobe Caslon Pro.
The characters are placed by hand in a tool called a composing stick, which ensures that each line is the same length. Remember, type is set backwards so that the printed text faces the correct direction. Paper-thin pieces of brass and copper can be shoved between letters and spaces to justify. This exactness is incredibly important. As Gregory puts it, if the line of text "wobbles instead of wiggles, that’s a problem". If one line of text is loose, even by a very small amount, all the lines could become loose. And if the printer tilts the composing stick during this assembly process, all the text could fall out.
The printing press in the Printing Office is a wooden common press, and the platen (the plate that presses the paper against the type) is made of sturdy mahogany. From the composing stick, the text slides onto a stone, with a smooth surface ensuring that the characters will all lie flat. The lines are locked in place in a chase, or frame, and the stone rests on a carriage, which can move back and forth below the suspended platen.
The ink balls have an ash wood handle and a leather cover, which is removed and soaked each night to keep the skin from drying and becoming unstable. Ash wood is important here, because it can take the abuse of having the leather tacked on and removed each day.
The ink is a historically precise blend of carbon black, boiled linseed oil, and pine resin. A small dollop can last a whole day, if properly dispersed first on the ink balls, and then on the type. The printer first beats the ink balls together, and then applies the ink to the type, covering the length of the document twice.
The paper is 100% cotton linen, which is dampened before use. Gregory stacks three pieces of wet paper, then three pieces of dry paper, and so on under a cloth overnight so that the sheets become equally damp. Triangle-shaped slots called duckbills keep the paper in place on the tympan, and the frisket folds down, protecting the edges of the paper from excess ink.
Once the type has been inked and the paper is loaded in place, the printer lets the tympan gently fall onto the type, and pulls the bar towards them, so that the platen applies pressure. In the case of a broadside, the printer moves the carriage and presses again, to ensure that every part of the document has received the roughly 200 pounds of pressure.
In this video, Gary Gregory demonstrates the full process. It takes him less than a minute, though in the late 18th century, the ideal rate for each impression would be about 15 seconds.
The Declaration: The Printing Office of Edes and Gill prints reproductions of historical documents, especially documents originally produced in Boston. When it comes to the Declaration of Independence, Gregory was inspired by the 2009 Christie’s auction of a rare Gill, Powars and Willis broadside. His recreation matches each of the 9,000 characters in the original, neatly organized in two columns. The broadside was originally printed around the same time as the newspaper editions mentioned above, and the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence in Boston on July 18, 1776.
Besides being printed in Boston, this broadside has a few interesting features. First of all, it is likely the second edition printed by Gill, Powars and Willis. The first edition did not include an imprint, while the second edition says "AMERICA: Boston, Printed by JOHN GILL, and POWARS and WILLIS, in Queen-Street." The imprint provided an intriguing lesson during our visit to the Printing Office. One of the other interpreters noticed that the first "e" in "Queen-Street" had slipped out of line (as in the top copy in this image). Gregory thought he had fixed it by moving the "e" back into place, but realized he had in fact shifted all of "treet" into the upper part of the line by mistake (as in the bottom copy in this image). This just shows that even an experienced printer can unwittingly make an error, and not realize it until multiple copies with the error have already been produced.
Second, this broadside includes a few misspelled words and anomalies. As discussed in our April Highlight on the Massachusetts Spy, anomalies include words that have been added, deleted, or changed when compared to John Dunlap’s broadside. In the case of the Gill, Powars and Willis broadside, the following words are notable:
• Changed: given (giving) his Assent to their Acts...
• Misspelled: wanting in Attention (Attentions) to our British Brethren...
• Added: and by the Authority of the good People...
Lastly, Secretary Charles Thomson’s surname is misspelled as "Thompson". This was a somewhat common error, occurring in several other New England printings, including Gill’s newspaper (and Edes’ as well).
With new-found printing knowledge, we took a closer look at the text and noticed several instances where a space is missing between words. These mashed-together words may seem like errors, but they actually relate back to the composition of the text. The composing stick ensured that each line would be the same length, but what if the printer needed to squeeze an extra character or two into a line, for reasons either aesthetic or practical? The best option would be to remove one of the spaces.
We did not throw away our shot at printing this recreation of the Declaration of Independence! Trying our hand at the printing press just demonstrated the skill required by those late 18th century printers who first produced the Declaration in broadside and newspaper form. There is a rhythm in using the ink balls, a precision to rolling the carriage back and forth, and a certain amount of strength required to operate the press. Thankfully, there was no need to stick around to print dozens more copies, or to clean up!
Gregory’s recreation of the Gill, Powars and Willis broadside was first printed on July 3, 2012, and is typically printed around the Fourth of July. It takes about three years for Gregory to bring a document from concept to fully-set type ready for printing. And if you think 9,000 characters is a lot, consider Gregory’s next project, soon to be unveiled – a recreation of the first Boston printing of the United States Constitution.
Special thanks to The Printing Office of Edes & Gill, Old North Church, and Gary Gregory. In addition to the church and Printing Office, the Old North Historic Site includes Captain Jackson’s Historic Chocolate Shop, the Old North Gift Shop, and two formal gardens.
• Joseph Moxon, Mechanick Exercises on the Whole Art of Printing, 1683 (1896 reprint in two volumes)
• In 2016, MIT students in a class called "Making Books: The Renaissance and Today" built a printing press. The students visited the Printing Office and talked to Gregory as part of their coursework.
By Emily Sneff
Last | Research Highlights