Three hundred seventy-three years ago, a man named Stephen Daye began printing a new book of psalms for the Puritan residents of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Though he had printed a pamphlet and an almanac, The Whole Booke of Psalms, Faithfully Translated into English Metre was his first book– actually, it was the first book to be printed anywhere in the English colonies. And if you want one, you can bid for it at Sotheby’s in November. If you’re a millionaire, that is.
Only 11 of the 1700 books Daye printed still exist, and only 4 or 5 are complete copies. The historic Old South Church in Boston is the proud owner of two, but they are about to part with one of them to raise money for the church. (For a detailed look at every extant copy, please check out this fabulous blog post at PhiloBiblos.)
Puritan families bought the book for about six pence in 1640, but in 2013 the going rate is an expected $15-30 million. In 1947, the last time a copy of Bay Psalm was sold, it broke the record for the most expensive book ever sold (even beating previous sales of Shakespeare’s First Folio and the Gutenberg Bible).
The machine he used has an interesting history of its own– Rev. Jesse Glover hired Daye to go to the Massachusetts colony and set up a printing operation there, but Glover died on the way from England to the Americas. Most retellings neglect to mention that his widow took over:
Widowed from Jose Glover [sic] en route from England to the Massachusetts colony, Elizabeth Glover founded America’s first printing business. Settling in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1638, Glover opened The Cambridge Press. … As a woman, Glover needed special permission from New England officials to open a business. By 1641, when she married Harvard’s first president, Henry Dunster, The Cambridge Press had issued 1700 copies of the widely used Bay Psalm Book. … After their marriage, Dunster took over operations of the Cambridge Press until his death in 1654, when the business was turned over to Harvard College. — National Women’s History Museum
So when I heard it was going on a three city tour before being auctioned at Sotheby’s in November, I knew I had to meet it face to face. I dragged my three year old into the Newberry Library and bribed her with the promise of a special treat if she would let me look at the old book for a few minutes. (I’m proud to say she was wonderful and gave the intimidating security men no cause for concern.)
I’m always impressed with the Newberry’s exhibits. This one was no exception. The book was displayed on velvet in a glass case. On either side of it, two massive prints of the title page and first page of text hung on the wall, framing the display. It was a beautiful and simple setup that provoked a sense of reverence for the object. Of course that may just be my geekiness talking, but I don’t think so, because even my rambunctious preschooler whispered while we were in the room and didn’t squirm out of my arms or try to run off. Unfortunately the room was too dark to get a photo with my phone. But this picture from Huffington Post shows the book in its display case:
Two other cases in the exhibit room held objects from the Newberry’s own collection that related to the Old South Church, where Benjamin Franklin was baptized in 1706.
Two of my favorites:
Boston, December 17, 1773: At a Meeting of the People of Boston, and the Neighboring Towns at the Old South Meeting House in Boston, on Tuesday December 14, 1773, and Continued by Adjournment to Thursday the 16th of Said Month, Occasioned by the Perfidious Arts of Our Restless Enemies. Boston: Edes and Gill, 1773. (Ruggles 35)
This broadside describing the meetings at the Old South Meeting House that led to the Boston Tea Party was hot off the presses as the Tea Party began.
Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. London: Printed A. Bell; sold by Messrs. Cox and Berry, King-street, Boston, 1773. (Case Y 285 .W567)
Phillis Wheatley, a congregant at the Old South Church, was brought to America on a slave ship at age 7. She grew up to be the first black woman published in the colonies. She eventually obtained her freedom and married a grocer. But like so many other women of her time, she died after giving birth at age 31.
The Bay Psalm Book will be on display from 10am to 4pm at the St. Louis Mercantile Library on Friday, September 13th and at the Cleveland Public Library on Wednesday, September 18th. If you can make it to either of these showings, I would highly recommend it. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to stand next to a rare piece of American history.
Flip through a copy of the Bay Psalm yourself by clicking on the link on the right side of this page at the Old South Church’s website under “additional resources”.