From the Mixed Up Files of Avis Clarke

Dylan McDonough, an AAS summer staffer working on the Printers’ File, attends Harvard College, where he is a rising junior with a concentration in history. A native of Worcester, he graduated from Bancroft School in 2014 and has returned to the area each of the last two summers. Here, he shares a glimpse of his work on the Printers’ File.

Antiquarian Hall - side viewBack in high school, I had a Monday morning tradition. At the start of every week I grabbed a Dunkin’ Donuts breakfast sandwich on my way to school, and, on that short drive, I invariably got stuck at the intersection of Salisbury Street and Park Avenue. Waiting for the light to turn green, I often glanced at the grand brick building to my right. What happened in this beautiful landmark of red bricks and white columns, this “American Antiquarian Society”?

Until I took a summer position at AAS a few months ago, that same question still lingered in my mind. I had been assigned to something I had never heard of: the Printers’ File. The Printers’ File, I found, consists of a collection of more than 16,000 notecards containing information on some 6,000 people involved in the early American book trade and was compiled almost exclusively by longtime AAS cataloguer Avis Clarke over forty years. My task: input the cards into a digital form that standardizes the data, rendering it interoperable and linked to a larger data universe. (For a more in-depth look at how the information is being inputted, please see my Printers’ File predecessor Emily Wells’s informative post on her own early work digitizing the cards.)

Currently, researchers must come to Antiquarian Hall to use the cards and sort through them by hand to find those that fall under a certain category. With digitization, though, researchers will be able to access the resulting resource remotely. More importantly, they will be able to search the data by race, gender, location, and more. Even with only about a third of the project done, I can already use a simple search tool to dig through the forms and find any man or woman who was affiliated with the book trade in a certain location. Naturally, as a Wormtown native, I searched for “Worcester,” and found eight early printers.

Haswell's Massachusetts Spy

Notice its declaration as Haswell’s Massachusetts Spy rather than Thomas’s.

The most intriguing of the eight, Anthony Haswell, first came to Worcester in 1775 as Isaiah Thomas’s apprentice. This link to AAS’s founder was what first drew me to Haswell, and as I dug deeper I found a captivating story behind his five years in Worcester. The cards on Haswell further record that, from 1777 to 1778, Thomas leased his Worcester printing press to Haswell, allowing Haswell to print Thomas’s famed newspaper the Massachusetts Spy. After Thomas took back control of the press and paper in 1778, Haswell spent the rest of the decade working in Thomas’s printing office before departing Worcester in 1781.

The Printers' File card for Haswell.

The Printers’ File card for Haswell.

When Avis compiled the Printers’ File, she also maintained a corresponding set of notecards recording her sources. Checking the source cards for Anthony Haswell, I found John Spargo’s Anthony Haswell: Printer – Patriot – Ballader (1925). Haswell actually served as Isaiah Thomas’s first apprentice, but the two printers apparently later had a falling out over criticisms Haswell printed about Thomas. Spargo tells us neither what was said nor where it was printed, but we can assume it was rather nasty, as Haswell’s name appears only once, in passing, in Thomas’s influential The History of Printing in America (1810).

The Printers' File source card for Haswell and the biography by Spargo.

The Printers’ File source card for Haswell and the biography by John Spargo.

Before their eventual falling out, though, Haswell and Thomas altered the course not just of their own lives but of Worcester as well. Toward the end of Haswell’s lease of the newspaper, Thomas seemed to want to sell his Worcester press altogether. In a February 11, 1778, letter printed in the Spy, Haswell declared his intentions to purchase the press and settle it permanently in Worcester, asking his readers for financial assistance. The letter begins, “The utility of a Printing Press in this large country, is so well known to you, that the loss of it, especially at this time…would be more felt than at any other.” Haswell recognized the importance of print to the development of a young country in rebellion and a young town at the heart of that rebellion. He further notes, “Printing utensils are no where to be procured in this country at present, types in particular, are not now made in America…” The young country had yet to develop a printing equipment industry, so Haswell urged Worcester to jump on the opportunity to secure a full press. In spite of these efforts, Haswell failed to procure the necessary funds, and when the lease expired Thomas returned to Worcester to reclaim ownership of his printing press.

The press Haswell hoped to buy from Thomas, Old No. 1.

The press Haswell hoped to buy from Thomas, known as Old No. 1.

We know today that Thomas did keep his press in Worcester—in fact, as I write this sentence I sit about ten feet from Old No. 1—but the story of Anthony Haswell’s attempted purchase still cannot be dismissed. In Haswell, we have a significant piece of the early Worcester printing business and a man who recognized the value of a press to the Heart of the Commonwealth. Yet this man, who acted as Isaiah Thomas’s first apprentice and seemingly shared his views on printing, barely appears in Thomas’s influential record of American printers because of a personal grudge. Here we see the bias inherent in much of historical writing, a bias that the digitized Printers’ File, with its standardization and its easy manipulation of data, minimizes to a degree. And in this way, the Printers’ File provides unique angles and lost viewpoints on history, from the ordinary to the monumental. After all, the uncovered story of Anthony Haswell begs the question: If he had succeeded in purchasing Thomas’s printing press, would we today have an American Antiquarian Society to preserve such hidden stories of history?

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