Thursday, January 13, 2011

18th Century Equal Opportunity & Success: Some Women Printers in Colonial America

In honor of Benjamin Franklin's birthday (coming up on the 17th), here's a bit of history about some of the people who moved in his circles during those Colonial times leading up to the American Revolution.

Letterpress Printers think of Ben Franklin first as a printer - Poor Richard's Almanac set out proverbs that are still quoted today, and Franklin himself described his occupation foremost as "Printer". Postal employees think of Ben as First Postmaster General of the US. In the process of talking or writing about the great man, it's easy to overlook that other people in those days combined the Printer/Postmaster occupations with distinction, including several members of the Goddard family of New London, Connecticut.

Here again, printers like to talk about Sarah Updike Goddard, her daughter Mary Katherine Goddard, and her son William Goddard, as printers in the young Republic, while the USPS recognizes William Goddard and his sister Mary Katherine as significant figures in US Postal History. It is interesting to read the different slants that appear from the different perspectives.

Thus, it is Mary Katherine Goddard (1738-1816) Postmaster of Baltimore, who is first held up by printers as a heroine, whose early edition of the Declaration of Independence was commissioned by the Continental Congress as a definitive version of the document. At the time it was common for Printers/Publishers to take up the role of Postmaster to expand their circulation while reducing their costs and preventing competitors from gaining advantage.

Mary Katherine was following in her father's - and her mother's - and her brother's - footsteps. Giles Goddard was Postmaster of New London Connecticut until his early death, and his wife Sarah Updike Goddard probably took over in his place as one of the early Postmasters during the Colonial period (when everyone was "one of the early" from a historical standpoint) under Crown rule. Together with Sarah's son - Mary's brother - constitutional activist William Goddard, the family operated a publishing, printing and distribution business that figured prominently in early American History.

It was a family business that perfectly utilized the talents of the partners: Sarah as financier and Publisher, William as the charismatic promoter and advance man, Mary as printer and eventually as General Manager.

Sarah Updike Goddard's main work was in Providence, Rhode Island, where she published the Providence Gazette. The family had multiple connections to Ben Franklin, and we see the first here, when Sarah took on Ben's former apprentice John Carter as a partner. She operated the print shop until 1768, when she sold it to John Carter and moved to Philadelphia. There she joined William and Mary Katherine in building up another printing business. Sarah Updike Goddard died in 1770, at the age of 70.

William was a patriot, committed to the cause of liberty, who established a series of pro-independence media concerns: newspapers in Philadelphia and Baltimore, print shops, and, significantly, founded the "Constitutional Post", a mail collection and distribution network to give the colonies safe and private means of communication outside the official channel of the Royal
Post. When independence was declared, Goddard's Constitutional Post became the framework for the United States Post Office. Unfortunately, it was summarily co-opted by the fledgling government without compensation.

Mary Katherine Goddard was the first woman officially appointed Postmaster by Congress after independence was declared. Often labeled "First woman Postmaster in the country", she was not, nor was she the first or only woman serving as official printer to government. She became Postmaster in Baltimore in 1775 and was the only woman Postmaster we know of holding office at the time the colonies transitioned into the United States. She served until 1789.

(I say "that we know of", for early Postal records do not list the gender of the employee, so information prior to the mid 19th century cannot be conclusive. As with printing, Postmaster was also a job so frequently held by women at this early time as to be unremarkable (and thus not mentioned as an oddity in any accounts). Further, however precise record keeping may have been at the time, much is likely to have been lost. For instance, the town I live in got its first Postmaster in 1875. The official list of Postmasters for the town is fairly complete for early years but has question marks for names from 1973 through 1981, and even has gaps within the past 10 years. )

In 1784 when the siblings each published a competing Almanac, Mary Katherine had a falling out with William, after which they parted ways, with him taking over the publishing business while she retained the book business.

She filed no less than five lawsuits against him.

When replaced as Postmaster in 1789 due to a reorgnization of the department that required a traveling Postmaster for the Baltimore region, she complained all the way up to President Washington and the Senate.

Despite petitions from a couple hundred local customers, the needs of the rapidly expanding city for an more robust postal organization were more compelling. Mary Katherine remained in Maryland and continued her book business, although now she had to pay postage when she mailed them.

Goddard was successful in her enterprises, amassing assets of cash, property, books, printing equipment. She also invested in slaves, owning as many as four men and women during one census, and at least one woman at the time of her death in 1816 whom she freed in her will. Unmarried and without her own children as heirs, Goddard disinherited her relations and left the woman, whose name was Belinda Starling, her entire estate as well as release from

One wonders why these people didn't free their slaves and bondservants while they were still living. We can only surmise that they approached this as a kind of "estate planning" much like some today who create elaborate wills and oppose estate taxes on the wealth they leave behind, rather than dividing with their heirs during their lifetime. It is a chilling thought, and one worth pondering.

Mary Katherine Goddard died in 1816, at the age of 78. William died the following year, aged 77.

(Have you ever noticed just how many of the people we read about from hundreds of years ago lived as long as we do, despite not having blood pressure meds and Ensure? While life expectancy has risen over the years, not a single millisecond of time has been added to human life span. That's a topic for another time.)

Click here to go to Part Two of this article: 18th Century Business Women: Limited Only By 20th Century Interpretation

(Photo: Illustration in "A Concise History of Printing" published in 1770, that pictures a press similar to that which these printers would have used. This is one of the oldest books in my library. The quality of the paper is such that it remains strong and flexible today. )

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