Although printing requires a substantial capital investment in equipment before any hope of profitability can be entertained, there have been numerous attempts over the years to set up printing houses in communities with astonishingly small population bases. In even the most remote Massachusetts towns, people like John Metcalf (Wendell), Ezekiel Terry (Palmer), and John and Solomon Howe (Enfield and Greenwich) operated as printers during the nineteenth century, specializing in a quotidian array of broadsides, song sheets, almanacs, toy books, and printed forms, hoping to supplement, or provide, a decent living.
This small, but growing collection consists of materials printed prior to the twentieth century in small Massachusetts towns, defined as towns with populations less than about 2,500. Although few of these houses survived for long, they were important sources for rural communities. Typically simple in typography, design, and binding, even crude, the output of such printers provides an important gauge of the interests and tastes of New England’s smallest and often poorest communities.
Operating a capital-intensive business like a printer’s shop in a rural setting is not an obvious route to financial success. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, several printers tried their hand in rural communities, attempting to make, or supplement, a living by meeting local demand for reading matter.
In many ways, the output of rural printing shops is unlike that coming from more cosmopolitan printing centers, centered on the more popular forms of literature and relatively easy to produce works like broadsides, song sheets, commemorative poems, almanacs, toy books, and, probably, forms. Generally simple, even crude, with respect to typography, design, and binding, the output of such printers provides an important gauge of the interests and tastes of New England’s smallest and often poorest communities. In some cases, the printing history of rural shops can be exceedingly complex. John Metcalf, for example, who operated in the tiny town of Wendell between 1812-1832, specialized in the simplest children’s books, using his array of woodblock illustrations creatively, sometimes chaotically, when printing what appear to be a series of very short runs. As a result, each printing may vary slightly, but frequently.
This small, but growing collection consists of books, pamphlets, and broadsides printed prior to the twentieth century in small Massachusetts towns, arbitrarily defined as towns with populations less than about 2,500. Although few of these shops survived for long, they were important resources for rural communities.
Among the printers represented in the collection are well-known firms such as the Howes of the Quabbin region, John Metcalf of Wendell, and Ezekiel Terry of Palmer. For comparative purposes, we have included a few works by printers such as the Merriams of Brookfield, a small town which was nevertheless well connected to a larger market by being situated on a major thoroughfare.
Processed by I. Eliot Wentworth, July 2015.
Works by other rural printers can be found elsewhere in SCUA’s collections: for example, several of Metcalf’s imprints from his time in Wendell (and his later work in Northampton) are included in the Early Children’s Literature Collection.
Cite as: Rural Massachusetts Imprints Collection (RB 012). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.
- Children's books--Massachusetts
- Howe, John, 1783-1845
- Howe, Solomon, 1750-1835
- Metcalf, John, 1788-1864
- Terry, Ezekiel, 1775-1829
Types of material