Tag Archives: printing press

Pilgrims and printing

More fuel-efficient, better mileage

I paid special attention to the Pilgrims and Plymouth colony for a reason. Even though I can’t be certain that William Brewster’s press ever made it to North America, it’s still true that the first North American printing operation (1638) was in Harvard College, Cambridge, Massachusetts, not far from Plymouth.

The Pilgrims saw their adventure as providential. They believed God landed them in Plymouth and not Jamestown, Virginia on purpose.

In Jamestown, there was an English colony already established. Things like a colonial government and culture (very different from the stern impassioned Pilgrim culture) were up and humming along nicely. In Plymouth, the Pilgrims had to start from scratch. They needed a system of government. The compact they made with each other (and God) aboard the Mayflower was how they governed themselves on land. Their congregation was a ‘covenant’ congregation—a covenant is a contract with God. They answered to God first, before a king or anybody else. If you’re accountable to God, you understand that your rights come from Him. As a contrast, King James said that his subjects’ rights came from King James himself (because of his divine right to rule). The Pilgrims didn’t like that idea so much.

Stern impassioned Pilgrims, or at least their feet, show up in verse 317 or 318 of America The Beautiful:

O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness.
America! America!
God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/America_the_Beautiful
Ray Charles nails it (though he doesn’t get to that particular verse):
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TRUjr8EVgBg

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William Brewster

And then…I don’t find evidence of the Pilgrims setting up their printing press in Plymouth. Not surprising, really, when you think about it. They’d landed by accident in a place where everything had to be built from scratch. No houses, no barricades or fort for protection, very little food. Setting up a printing operation wasn’t at the top of their to-do list.

Besides, when they packed the press, the Pilgrims expected to land in Virginia where there might’ve been a market for pamphlets and books—a large audience who spoke and read English.



I assume the press was William Brewster’s. In Holland he’d been an underground printer, printing pamphlets and books that were critical of the Church of England and King James I. This made Brewster an internationally wanted man, in hiding from King James’ men for a year before the Pilgrims set sail.



As far as that goes, all the Pilgrims/Puritans were underground. To be English and not worship with the Church of England was to question the divine right of kings (King James was the head of the C of E, just as Henry was). The Pilgrims worshiped privately at somebody’s house—usually in the country, so they wouldn’t be caught at it. They all faced the possibility of arrest and punishment. There was no religious freedom in the Pilgrims’ home country.


Anyhoo, it would be a few years before a press began running in North America.

https://www.prphbooks.com/blog/pilgrim
https://americanantiquarian.org/earlyamericannewsmedia/exhibits/show/news-in-colonial-america/colonial-print-culture
http://newenglandtravels.blogspot.com/2009/12/pilgrims-and-printing-press.html
https://plymrock.org/william-brewster-and-the-pilgrim-press/
https://americanminute.com/blogs/todays-american-minute/william-brewster-and-how-pilgrim-covenant-twisted-into-social-contract-then-socialism-american-minute-with-bill-federer
https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/pilgrims-progress-135067108/

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The printing press saves the day

I should’ve drawn the press closer to the crack.

But, wait!—the Pilgrims had brought a printing press with them, one of those Gutenberg presses with the big screw used to put big-time pressure on a platen. They dragged the press out of the hold and used the press’ screw to push the beam back into position. They unscrewed the press (lefty-loosey) so it pushed out against the keel and the beam. The Mayflower stayed sea-worthy enough to make a landing off Plymouth Rock. Now when you look at those paintings of Pilgrims setting foot on land you see why they look like they’d just cheated Death.

Inspired by a Currier & Ives print

So the printing press came to America. Happy Thanksgiving!

https://colonialquills.blogspot.com/2014/10/the-screw-that-saved-america.html
https://www.icr.org/article/mechanical-multitasking-mayflower
https://www.fayalexander.com/2011/12/great-iron-screw-saved-mayflower/
Here’s a conversation between some engineers/sailors discussing what the actual problem with the Mayflower may have been. The most plausible scenario (to me) is that the main beam cracked, which compromised the standing rigging that held the mast in place (the mast doesn’t rest on the beam, it’s seated—stepped—into a socket down on the keelson at the bottom of the ship. The beam’s job is to keep the rigging taut. The beam is under hundreds of pounds of pressure). Once they got the beam lifted with a screw, they could put timbers under the beam to hold it there. https://www.practicalmachinist.com/vb/antique-machinery-and-history/0t-saving-mayflower-1620-a-382121/
https://www.pinterest.com/pin/447826756689071831/
https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/keelson
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4KITlyn-wkQ
https://modelshipworld.com/topic/19155-mast-steps/

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Happy Guy Fawkes Day!

We were just talking about pamphlets—click here for a picture from a 1617 pamphlet of Guy Fawkes’ head on a pike.:
https://www.alamy.com/gunpowder-plot-the-head-of-guy-fawkes-from-a-1617-pamphlet-image221751638.html

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Satire

Jonathan Swift. One of the perks of being a pamphleteer was you got to wear big wigs.

Satire : a way of using humor to show that someone or something is foolish, weak, bad, etc. : humor that shows the weaknesses or bad qualities of a person, government, society, etc.

Many pamphleteers commented on social conditions or criticized the government. Jonathan Swift used satire to make his points—‘Swiftian’ is still an adjective for a particularly dark sense of humor. In 1729 Swift published  A Modest Proposal to transform poor Irish children from a burden to society instead to being a benefit. His pamphlet caused a howling, righteous uproar (click on the link to read it)—just as it would today on Instagram or Twitter. Daniel Defoe’s satirical The Shortest Way with the Dissenters got him arrested for sedition.

Then, as now, the ruling class had no sense of humor and wouldn’t tolerate criticism. The British government censored and arrested pamphleteers for expressing politically incorrect opinions. The idea that writers should have the liberty to write about whatever they choose and have their work printed and distributed is called freedom of the press. This was a new concept. John Milton defended freedom of the press in a pamphlet that he had to publish anonymously. He was revealed as its true author only a couple of years ago.

https://www.britannica.com/art/pamphlet
https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pamphleteer
https://collections.libraries.indiana.edu/lilly/exhibitions_legacy/defoe/pamphlets.html
https://www.amazon.com/Jonathan-Swift-As-Tory-Pamphleteer/dp/0295978708
https://www.bloomsbury.com/us/milton-9781608193783/
https://www.collinsdictionary.com/us/dictionary/english/satire

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The pamphleteers

Daniel Defoe

If you were a young writer just starting out during Brit lit’s Augustan Age (late 1600s – early 1700s), pamphlets were the way to build an audience. Pamphlets can be as short as 4 pages. Lots of them don’t even have covers. They’re cheap and easy to produce—and plenty of people could read by then—so you could sell bunches of ‘em. They were the social media of those days. If you had something on your mind, a topic to rant about, you wrote an essay and printed it up as a pamphlet. You became a pamphleteer.

You may recognize the names of some pamphleteers—Daniel Defoe (he wrote Robinson Crusoe), Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels), Tom Paine (his pamphlets were made into a collection titled Common Sense), John Milton (Paradise Lost).

https://www.britannica.com/art/pamphlet
https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pamphleteer
https://poemanalysis.com/movement/augustan-age/

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More Reformation—sorry

The printing press encouraged literacy, which almost all by itself brought on the Renaissance and shaped modern Western Civilization. Those pamphlets of Luther’s presented the argument that the Catholic Church needed to be reformed.

You guys are rolling your eyes now—”C’mon, Manders! Give the Reformation a rest already!” Okay, okay. There IS a reason I bring it up again: for thousands of years, the power-structure of every kingdom and empire was top-down, central-government, one-guy-runs-the-show—that is, all decisions are made by one king or emperor. In the Holy Roman Empire, the pope ran everything to do with the Church. All the Church’s power was in the Vatican, in Rome. The pope appointed priests to every last little church.

This model is ‘top-down.’ The power comes from above and works its way down.

The Reformation brought a big change: the new Protestant churches elected their own pastors. The power to choose a pastor resides in each individual member of a Protestant church. If you belong to a Protestant church, you have a say in who gets to be preacher. This was a big, new idea. It happened because a great number of people knew how to read and did read Luther’s pamphlets.

A path was being cleared for—eventually—a nation whose ordinary-shmo-citizens would elect its political leaders.

https://www.mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/1064/protestant-reformation
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ljdWWjdesMM
https://opencurriculum.org/5475/the-medieval-church/
https://www.cnn.com/2017/10/29/world/reformation-world-change/index.html
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Top-down_and_bottom-up_design

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It was a big deal

The printing press was the first mass medium. I’m expanding the definition of ‘medium’—how you stick pigment to a surface—to include the idea of spreading information by putting ink on paper. ‘Mass’ as I use it here means lots of people. Printing was a new super-effective way to broadcast ideas to a big audience. Martin Luther understood that right away. His pamphlets were carried by ships to different countries, translated, reprinted and seen by people all over the western world. You could argue that there’d have been no Protestant Reformation without the printing press. We’ll be coming up soon to when pamphleteers used the printing press to explain to lots of people how a new system of government might work: a nation run by its citizens instead of a king.

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/mass%20medium
THIS: https://courses.lumenlearning.com/suny-hccc-worldhistory/chapter/the-printing-revolution/

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Citation, please!

If he’d burnt her omelet we’d need an egg-citation.

Standardization is a feature of civilization. The great empires standardized measurement, money, laws, highways, armies…everybody knew how long a mile is or how much a candybar costs. Remember how Charlemagne wanted to standardize music? Printed books standardize information. When you’re in school, reading a textbook, info in your book shows up on the same page in the textbook the kid next to you is reading. That isn’t true of handwritten books. Uniformity allows books to have numbered pages so we can find that information later.

That means if you’re a scholar, a scientist, or just some shmo writing a history blog, you can cite a piece of information. If I write, “In ad 878 the king of England was a not-so-good baker—he let an old peasant lady’s cakes burn,” I can cite that story in a history book so you know I’m not making it up. I’d give you the title of a book, its author, and the exact page so you can find the story. Anyone with a copy of that book will find that info. Printing made it possible to build on a body of knowledge, like history or science.

Cite: to quote by way of example, authority, or proof
https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cite
A good old-fashioned citation looks like this: The Vikings, Frank R. Donovan, American Heritage Publishing, page 43
In this blog format, it’s convenient to cite by linking. Remember, though, that information on the web can be changed or deleted easily.
https://britishfoodhistory.com/2018/10/25/king-alfred-burns-the-cakes/
https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/King-Alfred-the-Cakes/

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It’s okay to speak your own language now

I want to take a second to recap. I don’t think I’ve done a sufficient job of telling you how the mechanized printing press, movable type, printed books and pamphlets changed everything in Western culture. For instance, the Protestant Reformation happened because of Martin Luther’s pamphlets. That’s just for starters.

Okay, maybe that’s not actually a line from Don Quixote…

The regional variations or dialects of Latin emerged as distinct languages because they’d been printed in those early books. Printing lent respectability to the romance languages. Before those early books were printed, you probably thought of yourself as some yokel grunting out the local version of Latin mixed with whatever backwoods patois (PA-twah) your great-grandparents spoke. After they were printed, suddenly you were speaking the language of Dante or Chaucer or Luther or Cervantes. If those big shots thought your language were good enough to use in a printed book, there must be something worthy about it. 

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