When the Massachusetts Bay Colony was charted in 1628, the Reverend Jose Glover of Surrey subscribed for £50 of its capital stock. Later, Glover raised funds and acquired a printing press for the new colony. After resigning from his pulpit, Glover secured passage for his family and for the family of his indentured servant Stephen Daye. In addition to his family, servants, and household furnishings, Glover set sail in 1638 with a printing press valued at £20, 240 reams of paper worth £60, and a case of assorted type. Sadly, Mr. Glover did not survive the voyage. Glover’s widow, Elizabeth, with assistance from Mr. Daye, went on to set up the press at a house on Crooked Lane (now 15 Holyoke Street) in Cambridge. In a journal entry dated March 1639, John Winthrop, the governor for the colony, noted, “A printing house was begun at Cambridge by one Daye, at the charge of Mr. Glover, who died on seas hitherward.” Interestingly, Stephen Daye was a locksmith by trade. More is not known regarding why he was indentured and what position Mr. Glover originally intended him to have in the print shop. However, Mr. Daye’s son, Matthew, may have been apprenticed as a printer in London.When the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth in 1620, they brought with them a Book of Psalmes (Englished both in Prose and Metre) translated by Henry Ainsworth, a fellow Separatist, and published in 1612. One of the significant innovations of the Reformation had been the introduction of Psalm singing by the entire congregation. When the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony set sail across the Atlantic in 1629, they carried Sternhold and Hopkins Book of Psalmes. This popular psalter was frequently appended to editions of the Geneva Bible and the Book of Common Prayer and was essentially the authorized Psalm book for the Church of England.
While the Puritans were not Separatists like their Pilgrim cousins, they were NonComformists. They did not separate themselves from the Church of England, but rather hoped to reform the church from within. The Sternhold and Hopkins psalter was a “poetic paraphrase” of the Psalms, thus was found unacceptable by many of the colony. The Old Testament book of II Chronicles admonishes, “Moreover Hezekiah the king and the princes commanded the Levites to sing praise unto the Lord with the words of David, and of Asaph the seer.” As early as 1636, the leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony discussed the need for a fresh English translation of the original Hebrew. The Psalms were portioned out to “thirty pious and learned Ministers” with John Cotton, Richard Mather and John Eilot (also translated the Bible into the Algonquin language) of particular note.
In 1640, The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre was printed. This book now popularly known as the Bay Psalm Book was the very first book printed in North America. Seventeen hundred copies were printed in that first edition. Later court documents record that the cost of that printing was £33. One hundred and sixteen reams of paper were used at a cost of £29. The book was sold for twenty pence per copy with the total receipts from sales estimated to be 141 pounds, 13 shillings, 4 pence with a profit of 79 pounds, 13 shillings, 4 pence! The new psalter was adopted immediately by almost every congregation in the colony henceforth its name. The Bay Psalm Book even became popular in England and Scotland. More than fifty editions were printed before the newer Tate and Brady and Isaac Watts hymnals became popular in the mid-eighteenth century.
Interestingly, despite the Puritans’ emphasis on congregational singing, the 1640 Whole Booke of Psalmes does not contain any musical notation. Instead the end of the text offers “An admonition to the Reader” which explains “The verses of these psalmes may be reduced to six kindes, the first whereof may be sung in very neere fourty common tunes, as they are collected, out of our chief musicians, by Tho. Ravenscroft.” Previously, in 1621, the English musicologist Thomas Ravenscroft published an expanded edition of Sternhold and Hopkins psalter that had included musical notation. Most of the Puritans would have been familiar with these tunes. (A complicated explanation regarding quatrains, syllables, common and long meter, etc. can be found on the Internet.)
Much also can be found regarding the eccentricities of Daye’s printing. The type used in the printing were worn. Daye did not clean his type well between pulls resulting in dirty or ink-clotted type. Italics were in short supply and there were no apostrophes.
He had to make do. Many of the Hebrew characters were woodcuts. The Whole Booke of Psalmes was printed as a quarto, but an octavo format would have saved more than half the paper that was used. The text type, 95 English Roman, was not well suited to the smaller format. The book is full of misspellings and typographical errors.
At the head of every left hand page throughout, ‘PSALM’ is spelled while at the head of every right hand page, it is spelled ‘PSALME’. Humorously, Daye acknowledges that his printing includes mistakes. On the recto of the final leaf, Daye lists “Faults escaped in printing” where he goes on to list seven mistakes specifically. He then continues, “The rest, which have escaped through oversight, you may amend, as you finde them obvious.” Nevertheless, while these mistakes that may have been obvious to the seventeenth century reader, I dare say that most of us will probably less observant. Despite his lack of training and expertise, Stephen Daye will go down in history as America’s first printer.
Only eleven copies of the original seventeen hundred books printed in 1640 exist today with only six still retaining their original title page. In 2013, one of these originals went up for auction at Sotheby’s. This rare book had remained under the ownership of the Old South Church in Boston until they decided to liquidate some of their assets in order to pay for some much-needed repairs to their historic building. On November 26, 2013, the book sold for a record $14,165,000! So, the very first book printed in North America also set a new world’s record for the sale of a printed book.
I own a hard back modern bound reproduction of this book. The quality of the scan is poor. Our Psalms is bound using the same traditional hand binding as the original and our type is clean and easy to read. Our Psalms book has the same size text block and its outside dimensions and thickness are the same as the original 1640.