The London Coffee House, in the center of the image above, fronts both First & Market Streets in Philidelphia. The street running from left to right is Front or First Street. Market Street runs perpendicular to First Street. Aitken’s Print Shop is three doors up from the London Coffee House on Market Street and says “Book Store” on the side.
Artist: Castner, Samuel, Jr., b.1843-d. 1929.
“This map of Philidelpha shows Market Street, where Robert Aitken’s Book Store, Print Shop, and bindery were located. It is on the left, three doors up from the corner. The yellow cross indicates where Market Street is. You can see the market area in the center of that street from First Street to Forth Street.”
At right: “I found this historic marker using Google Maps. I virtually walked up and down Market Street until I ran into it. Ouch.” I hope to be able to visit this spot one day and see it for myself and take a higher resolution photo to use here.
The Museum of the Bible has a few short videos on the Aitken Bible
Robert Aitken stepped in to fill this void. Beginning in 1777, Aitken began publishing and selling New Testaments. Demand was heavy, so every year, for the next five years, Aitken published a new edition of his New Testament base off of the King James Bible. In total, he published five editions: Aitken’s second edition was published in 1778; his third in 1779; his fourth in 1780; and finally his last and fifth edition was published in 1781. I am unsure of the number of New Testaments Aitken printed each year, but I expect that it was somewhere between one thousand and ten thousand.
It was not until 1782 that Aitken published his first complete Bible; his first Old Testament (1782) was added to his previously printed 1781 New Testament. I believe that Aitken planned ahead and printed about ten thousand additional New Testaments in 1781 and had them waiting to be bound with the ten thousand Old Testaments that he printed in 1782. You will notice that the 1782 Bible’s New Testament title page is dated 1781, while the Old Testament is dated 1782. This was the only year that the Aitken Bible, aka “Bible of the Revolution” was published.
After the war, America was once again flooded with inexpensive Bibles from England. Aitken was stuck with way too many Bibles and was near financial ruin. The Presbyterian Synod stepped in and purchased Aitken’s remaining stock and gave them to the poor; thus saving him from bankruptcy.
Take a look at this book in person during your next stay at The George Washington Inn in Port Angeles, Washington”
Their library also contains other period books and pamphlets that I have made for them.
This is the title page of an Issac Watts Hymnal Printed by Robert Aitken:
A History Of Robert Aitken and the Bible of the Revolution
Robert Aitken, Colonial printer and publisher, was born in Dalkeith, Scotland on the 22nd of January 1735. After serving an apprenticeship with a bookbinder in Edinburgh, Scotland, Aitken became established in Paisley, Scotland as a binder, bookseller, and even as a proprietor of a circulating library. In 1769, Aitken came to Philadelphia to test the market as a bookseller. He advertised for sale, for “ready money only”, a long list of “the very best books”. Knowing that this visit to Philadelphia was only a temporary one, Aitken said in his advertisement, “Such who intend to furnish themselves with any of the above articles will apply soon, as the proprietor will make but a short stay in this place.”
Aitken soon returned to Scotland for his family, and then immigrated to Philadelphia permanently in 1771. With £50 of stock, Aitken settled into a long and productive career as a Philadelphia printer and bookseller. Aitken set up his shop on Front Street, nearly opposite the popular London Coffee House and began printing everything from newspapers to books. Aitken’s original book stock consisted of Bibles, psalm books, catechisms, spellers, arithmetics and dictionaries, along with works of theology and the classics. Aitken’s account book, now kept at the Library Company of Philadelphia, shows that in addition to selling books and stationary items, his inventory included such wide-ranging items as silver knee buckles, needle cases and even a bird cage! A contemporary, William McCulloch praised Aitken’s binding skills declaring, “There was no better finished binding ever done than some of the books executed in his shop.”
Printers occupied an odd and somewhat luminal space in the socioeconomic spectrum. They were artisans and tradesmen and in many ways of firmly middling status. Mostly men, they were manual laborers, setting type and pulling the press for hours every day. They frequently owned their own businesses, which placed them above the poorest laborers but was not enough to grant them the status of merchants or other elites. At the same time, printers had to be broadly literate to succeed. That is, they both had to be capable readers and at the same time aware of trends in the arts, sciences, politics, the law, and other areas of culture. In their role as information gatherers and distributers, printers maintained steady contact with people across a wide range of the socioeconomic spectrum, from mariners carrying news from abroad to wealthy merchants wishing to advertise their ships’ goods. Printers thus employed a range of strategies in order to maintain their businesses. Government printing jobs provided a steady stream of income and useful political connections.
Aitken was an aggressive businessman who used his Philadelphia location to his advantage. His contemporaries saw his shop as “the largest and most valuable bookstore” in Philadelphia. Aitken often dined with various members of the Continental Congress at the London Coffee House on Market Street, and he used these connections to eventually become Congress’s official printer.
In January of 1776, Robert Aiken began printing the journals of the Continental Congress. When Philadelphia was under threat of a British attack in December 1776, Congress temporarily moved to Baltimore. A resolution was passed sending “an Express” to find out where Aitken was, and to get him, if he were willing, with the journals already printed and “his press and utensils to this place at the public expense.” Aitken decided, however, to remain in Philadelphia.
Prior to the Revolutionary War, the English Bible had not been printed in the American Colonies. Bibles had to be imported. In fact, it was illegal for any printer in the English Colonies to print a Bible in the English language. In order to insure accuracy in printing, publication of the Scriptures in any lands under the British crown was restricted to the Oxford and Cambridge University Presses and one other printer licensed by the king in Edinburgh.
After the onset of the Revolution, in 1777, Aitken decided to test the Colonial market with a printing of an American New Testament. His New Testament was well received, especially because it had been printed and bound in Philadelphia and not in England. Aitken first advertised his New Testament for sale in the Pennsylvania Evening Post on August 28, 1777:
The printing of a New Testament required substantially less work and resources than an edition of the entire Bible, and it met with such great success that Aitken continued to produce editions in 1778, 1779, 1780, and 1781, publishing a total of five editions. No copies are known to exist of the 1778, 1779, and 1780 editions while only three copies of the 1777 edition are known to survive. One is held by the Philadelphia Historical Society, a second by the New York Public Library, and a third sold at auction in London on November 29, 2011 for £128,100 ($198,555). Aitken’s 1781 printing of the New Testament was bound with his newly translated Old Testament in 1782.
Since the “first shot” was fired on Lexington Green, the Continental Congress, sitting in Philadelphia, had been required to make many crucial decisions both of military and political nature. Now, in July 1777, a petition signed by three clergymen was placed before them making a request of an entirely different nature. Since the onset of the war, Bibles had become scarce and expensive. The importation of goods from England had been cut off, and this included the importation of the Holy Bible. Concerned about the shortage of Bibles, the Chaplain of Congress, Patrick Allison, brought the issue to the attention of the Continental Congress:
The committee assigned to consider the petition sought bids from five Philadelphia printers, one of which was Robert Aitken. Each printer offered estimates that varied widely from each other’s in terms of the amount of time, type, and paper that would be required for printing a complete edition of the Bible. The most ambitious of the printers consulted by the committee was Robert Aitken, who based his estimate on an edition of two-hundred thousand!
The consensus was that the job could only be done economically by printing an edition of thirty thousand Bibles or more. Yet, in the American colonies, there was a scarcity of the type and paper necessary for the successful publication of a book as large as the Bible. Most of the American presses were used for the impression of documents, proclamations, pamphlets and papers. The lack of the domestic raw materials and machinery necessary to print the Bibles would essentially drive up the cost to be two to three times more than an imported edition.
The next reference to this petition appears in the Minutes of the Continental Congress for Thursday, September 11, 1777. The Committee reported to Congress that it had:
“…conferred fully with the printers, etc., in this city and are of the opinion, that the proper types for printing the Bible are not to be had in this country, and that the paper cannot be procured, but with such difficulties and subject to such casualties as render any dependence on it altogether improper…”
Even without the constraint of the Crown’s Bible patent, it would still be less expensive and easier to import “Bibles from Holland, Scotland or elsewhere directly into the different ports of the states of the Union.” The Committee then recommended that Congress import twenty thousand copies of the Bible.
A vote was taken with Congress divided on what action to take: seven voted “yes” to import the Bibles, while six voted “no”. It was decided “that the consideration thereof be postponed to Saturday next.” Yet, nothing more is known regarding this resolution. That same day, September 11, 1777, Washington’s troops lost the Battle of Brandywine, retreating eventually to Valley Forge, and British General John Burgoyne’s troops were marching down from Canada.
British General Howe was on his way to Philadelphia, the Continental Congress, in a panic, evacuated Philadelphia before action could be taken on the Bible resolution, fleeing first to the City of Lancaster, then to York, Pennsylvania. Before adjourning on September 18, 1777, one of the final actions of that day’s session attempted to rescue printing facilities from the enemy. Congress resolved that “Major General Armstrong be directed, forthwith, to cause all the printing presses and types in this city and Germantown, forthwith to be removed to secure places in the country…” Aitken, in the midst of his work on his New Testaments, was obliged to remove his type and materials hastily out of the city, and bury them under a barn, in order to save them from destruction by the advancing British soldiers.” Two weeks later, on September 26th, the British under General Howe took possession of the city of Philadelphia.
While Aitken’s account book shows sales of New Testaments in the last few days of August 1777, there are no more entries until after the British left Philadelphia in June of 1778. Then, on July 18th, Aitken advertised in the Pennsylvania Evening Post a new “neat” edition of the New Testament, just published, and sales reappear in his account book.
Certain that there would be popular demand, toward the beginning of 1781, Aitken decided to print a complete Bible at his own financial risk. During the time his Bible was in preparation, Aitken presented a memorial to Congress in which he asked for sanction of an authorized edition.
In January, 1781, the issue of a Congressional sponsored Bible was again brought before Congress. Robert Aitken petitioned Congress to take up where it had left off when interrupted four years earlier by the British occupation of Philadelphia. Hoping for some kind of subsidy or patent, on January 21, 1781, Aitken requested that Congress sponsor publication of an American edition of the King James Bible:
“That in every well regulated Government in Christendom, The Sacred Books of the Old and New Testament, commonly called the Holy Bible, are printed and published under the Authority of the Sovereign Powers, in order to prevent the fatal confusion that would arise, and the alarming Injuries the Christian Faith might suffer from the spurious and erroneous editions of Divine Revelation…”
Robert Aitken continued:
“That your Memorialist has no doubt but this work is an object worthy the attention of the Congress of the United States of America, who will not neglect spiritual security, while they are virtuously contending for temporal blessings.
Under this persuasion your Memorialist begs leave to, inform your Honors that he both begun and made considerable progress in a neat edition of the Holy Scriptures for the use of schools, but being cautious of suffering his copy of the Bible to issue forth without the sanction of Congress,
humbly prays that your Honors would take this important matter into serious consideration & would be pleased to appoint one Member or Members of your Honorable Body to inspect his work so that the same may be published under the Authority of Congress.
And further, your Memorialist prays, that he may be commissioned or otherwise appointed & authorized to print and vend editions of, the Sacred Scriptures, in such manner and form as may best suit the wants and demands of the good people of these States, provided the same be in all things perfectly consonant to the Scriptures as heretofore Established and received amongst us.”
When read on January 26, 1781, the memorial was referred to the “committee on the motion for printing the old and New Testament”, but many months passed before any action was taken. While Aitken waited for a response, he moved forward finishing his work on the Old Testament and on towards printing a complete Bible.
The astronomical expense of such a project led Aitken to apply for help to insure the success of his project. In the autumn of 1781, Aitken petitioned the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania requesting that they render him monetary assistance. On March 15, 1782, the General Assembly resolved “that the sum of one hundred and fifty pounds be given on loan, to the said Robert Aitken, in small sums and at such times as will be most convenient for paying the same, free of interest, for the space of one year, from the date of receipt of such sum or sums as he may receive.” Ironically, it is not recorded whether Aitken ever took advantage of this small but greatly needed financial assistance.
On August 11, 1782, still without any response from Congress, Aitken announced his Bible’s forthcoming publication in a circular letter, which tellingly left a blank space where its price was to be filled in, as someone did in the image below:
On September 1, 1782, the committee appointed by Congress to consider Aitken’s project learned that he had completed his Bible and it was almost ready for publication. Finally, the committee took action by requesting the Chaplains of Congress, Rev. George Duffield, the pastor of the Third Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia and Rev. William White, rector of Christ Church, Philadelphia to examine Aitken’s Bible for accuracy. These two gentlemen gave the Bible an enthusiastic endorsement. “Having selected and examined a variety of passages throughout the work,” they reported, “we are of opinion, that it is executed with great accuracy as to the sense, and with a few grammatical and typographical errors as could be expected in an undertaking of such magnitude.”
Before the Chaplain’s report was received by Congress, September 9, 1782, Robert Aitken sent a message to Congress informing them he had nearly completed his Bible, “accomplished in the midst of the Confusion and Distresses of War.” In seeking monetary assistance of Congress, Aitken suggested that Congress purchase a portion of the edition with the congressional funds of the newly formed United States: “One Fourth of it will Amount to 200 Bibles for each State. . .”
The next day, the Chaplains made their report to the committee:
On September 18, 1782, Congress approved the “pious and laudable undertaking of Mr. Aitken, as subservient to the interest of religion, as well as an instance of the progress of arts in this country,” and recommended Aitken’s Bible to the American people giving him authorization to publish said recommendation “in any manner he shall think proper.”
The government still offered Aitken no tangible support. Congress had no money in which to fund the Bible project. The American economy was in shambles, the national government was near bankruptcy, and Congress owed months of back pay to the American troops. Congress did however vote to endorse it.
Robert Aitken printed these three documents in the front of his Bible following the title page, the report of the committee to review his memorial; the report of the Congressional Chaplains; and Congress’s endorsement.
Aitken’s Bible was not issued until September 25th when he sent a special copy to John Hanson, then president of the Congress, for the use of that body and as an example of the work they had honored with their patronage. On the same day, he placed an advertisement of his Bible, just below the full text of the action of the Congress and the Committee reports in the Freeman’s Journal.
This was the boldest move in Aitken’s printing career. He set type and printed ten thousand copies of the complete Bible, both Old and New Testaments. The magnitude of this accomplishment goes easily unappreciated today. Robert Aitken’s Bible was printed at his Philadelphia print shop using an early American movable-type press.
Printing establishments in this period were operated by a master with the help of the journeyman and/or apprentices he employed. These individuals had to set the type in molds for each individual page, then ink the type, and finally impress those molds on sheets of papers. It was arduous, back-breaking work. Each hand press required at least two, commonly, three, workers to facilitate its operation, as one worker operated the press lever (which lowered the type platen onto the paper), while another worker inked the type, and a third worker fed and extracted the paper.
In order to print one Bible, Aitken had to set and proof type for nearly two thousand pages of text. He then had to acquire the necessary amount of paper when such paper had to be made by hand, and better grades of paper usually had to be imported from Europe. Aitken had to use what was the most readily available so he was forced to use an inferior grade of paper made in Pennsylvania. And because there was the need to use paper sparingly, margins in the Bible are almost nonexistent.
Robert Aitken’s little Bible was small enough to fit into the coat pocket of the Revolutionary War soldiers. On the title page is a curious heraldic device. It is composed of a shield surmounted by an Eagle, supported by two horses instead of the lion and the unicorn as on the English arms. Below is a ship, ploughing, and sheaves of grain which appear on the arms of Pennsylvania.
This first American edition of the Bible in English contained 726 leaves (1,452 pages). The fifty extant copies reveal that it was bound both in one and two volumes, most in simple brown calfskin, but some with gold-tooled ornamentation.
Nevertheless, Aitken’s timing proved tragic. When Aitken began this monumental project, it was uncertain how long the trade embargo or the war might last. After the war ended, less expensive, imported Bibles began to flow into American ports once more. The price of Bibles in the American market was determined by the cost of imports, and English publishers could undersell the price of Aitken’s Bible with their ready access to better raw materials. Aitken’s cost of production and margin of profit were irrelevant to what price the market would bear.
Later, Aitken petitioned Congress asking that they purchase a portion of the edition in an attempt to reduce his financial losses. In 1783, Dr. John Rodgers, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of New York, approached George Washington with the idea of giving one of Aitken’s Bibles to every veteran of the American Revolution. Neither idea was accepted. George Washington replied, “It would have pleased me well, if Congress had been pleased to make such an important present to the brave fellows who have done so much for the security of their country’s rights and establishment.” But this was a suggestion made too late. Two-thirds of the army had already been discharged.
Eventually, Aitken received help from the Philadelphia Synod of the Presbyterian Church, which agreed to purchase his Bibles to distribute among the poor. On the 24th of May, 1783, it was “Resolved, As Mr. Aitken, from laudable motives, and with great expense, hath undertaken and executed an elegant impression of the Holy Scriptures, which, on account of the importation of Bibles from England, will be very injurious to his temporal circumstances, the Synod agree that the committee to purchase Bibles for distribution among the poor purchase Aitken’s Bible and no other, and earnestly recommend it to all to purchase such in preference to any other”
Even with this act of charity, Aitken was financially ruined. Aitken, in 1789, memorialized Congress for a patent giving him the exclusive right to print the Holy Scriptures for a term of fourteen years. It was not granted. In this request, Aitken claimed that he had lost more than £3,000 in the publication of his Bible.
Aitken also lost vast sums of money by the continental currency, hoarding it up to the last, having embraced the notion that it would be redeemed at its nominal value. In 1790, Aitken wrote George Washington asking for help to become the printer and stationer for Congress. This request was denied like all of the others.
Aitken died in debt. He sold his house on Market Street to expunge a part of that debt. On his death in 1802, the Gazette of the United States in its issue of July 23rd said simply:
“On the 14th in the 68th year of his age, Mr. Robert Aitken, Sen. of this city, Printer: near 40 years a respectable inhabitant of this city; through the whole of an useful life regarded for his integrity and probity; and leaving behind him a family, carefully brought up in the paths of industry and virtue.”
After his death, Aitken’s daughter Jane took over her father’s business. Jane’s handwriting is found throughout her father’s records. Her later career would certainly suggest that she took an active part in his business, which combined a bindery and printing press with a book and stationer’s shop. Jane continued in business for fifteen years, until about 1817.
So, the question is “why are there so few surviving copies of Aitken’s Bible if he printed ten thousand? First, the Bible was a small duodecimo. The hazards of a small book are many times those of a large book. Large folio Bibles were becoming very popular near the end of the eighteenth century, and as opposed to Aitken’s little pocket Bible which could easily be misplaced, a large imposing Bible would be left on a table for display as a status symbol of wealth.
Additionally, the late 18th century was the beginning of the Great Western Migration pushing many families to travel West in order to fill the need for more land for a growing population. The rough wear, tear and usage of migration life would certainly have soon destroyed the binding and leaves of Bibles that had not been lost. And considering that the paper Aitken was forced to use because of the embargo and sheer economizing was highly acidic wood-pulp paper, Aitken’s Bible would have been very vulnerable to decay.
Finally, the Presbyterian Church, in order to help Aitken rid himself of his surplus Bibles, had voted to give “Aitken’s Bible and no other” in the distributions which they made to the poor. Bibles are very valuable and highly prized by people who ask for them because they need them and want to read God’s Word. But Bibles given away to the poor by charities in the belief that they “will do good to the poor”, are in another class. Such Bibles are very apt to fall into the class of goods that become easily disposed of.
Of the ten thousand copies of Robert Aitken’s Bible, only a few are known to exist today. It is one of the world’s rarest books. Of the copies still in existence, few of them are in a perfect condition. Most of them are more or less defective from excessive use or abuse. In some cases, either the general title-page is gone or portions of the text, and only a limited number of Bibles still have the resolutions of Congress. Whatever the condition, a complete Aitken Bible is very rare and valuable. An Aitken Bible was sold by Sotheby’s in 2016 for $106,250!! The last Aitken “Bible of the Revolution” to be auctioned was sold by Christie’s in the summer of 2018 for $118,750!!!
The British Museum in London has a copy that bears Aitken’s autograph memorandum, “this first copy of the first edition of the Bible ever printed in America in the English language.” How ironic! The Aitken Bible has been championed by many people because it has symbolized a dramatic release from British, and indeed government control, over their right and ability to worship.
F I N I S