“Ye Olde” American Printing Press

Issue #16 - Newspapers

Ever since its first appearance in the American colonies in the 17th century, the printing press has served an important role in the history of the United States. In the original thirteen colonies, emphasis was placed on teaching children to read and write in order to be good Christians and citizens. In the South, Thomas Jefferson drafted a bill for the Virginia Assembly in 1770, entitled “A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge.” Jefferson proposed the establishment of public schools in which “reading, writing, and common arithmetick” would be taught to “all the free children, male and female.” (This meant that education would only be available to white people, not people of color, slaves, Indians, or indentured servants.) Jefferson believed that only a literate population could prevent the growth of tyranny. The printing press thus became a strategic weapon in the colonists’ fight for independence. 


The printing press has played an important role in American history since the first Europeans arrived in North America. The very first printing press on the continent was brought from Seville, Spain to Mexico City in 1539 and was used to print Catholic catechisms. In 1693, the “Mercurio Volante,” a small pamphlet containing local and international news printed in Spanish, became the first periodical printed in North America.

The British colonies did not have access to a printing press until 100 years later. In 1639, Stephen Day opened a press at Harvard College, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The first publication produced was a form called the “Oath of a Freeman.” All settlers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony were required to take this oath, a promise of loyalty to the Massachusetts Bay Company, which controlled the colony. 

Thanks to its invention by Johannes Gutenberg in the city of Mainz, Germany in 1440, the printing press made Germany a center for literate culture. When German Lutheran immigrants began to move to Pennsylvania in the 17th century seeking religious freedom, they brought that culture with them, as well as their metal typefaces. Even Stephen Day’s Cambridge printing press used metal type imported from Amsterdam. The European influence on American presses was significant because, by design, metal typefaces from Germany and the Netherlands only included the letters needed to print in German and Dutch--not English. American printers worked around the problem by adapting Olde English into the new typeface. The best example of this is the disappearance of the common Anglo-Saxon letters, thorn (Þ or þ) and eth (Ð or ð). 

The English language is unusual in its reliance on the “th” sound, as in words such as thing, myth, and the. As the English alphabet developed, letters were created for all the commonly-occurring sounds, and “th” was so prevalent that the Anglo-Saxons adopted two letters, thorn and eth, to symbolize it. Thorn and eth were both pronounced “th” and were used interchangeably. In the Early Middle Ages, when most books were still being copied by hand, the letter eth became indistinguishable from the letter Y. 

And that’s where things got complicated for American printers. As the English colonies grew, so did demand for an English-language press. But printers like Stephen Day in Cambridge, Massachusetts and, later, Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia, faced the challenge of printing the English language with an available metal typeface based on the German alphabet. Not surprisingly, the German alphabet did not contain the English letters thorn and eth. But it did contain a Y. 

American printers made do, and thus was born an avalanche of “Ye Olde” this and that. A reader in the 18th century would immediately know how to pronounce the word ” Ye:” the same way today we pronounce the word “the.” Y, when followed by a superscript, was recognized as the letter eth. (Eventually, over time, the letters t + h were adopted to form the “th” sound.)

Top:  Handwritten 17th-century document showing the thorn with a superscript “e” above.  Bottom:  Example of abstracted transcription of 17th-century records representing the thorn with a letter “y” followed by a superscript “e.”

What began as a simple printing adaptation has now become a sort of cliched signifier of anything colonial or even medieval; from Ye Olde Ice Cream Shoppe to the Ye Olde Renaissance Faire. Modern speakers often incorrectly pronounce “Ye”  with the y and long e sounds, or “yee,” instead of the modern word “the.”  No one in centuries past called anything “Ye Olde” anything! All because the German alphabet didn’t include a thorn.

Of course, printing presses were only useful to a literate population. By 1800, most of the white men in the original thirteen colonies were literate, a rate rivaled only by Scotland at the time. Literacy was more prevalent in cities and in the North than in rural areas and the American South, but it was nevertheless relatively widespread throughout the American Revolutionary period. The printing press thus became a central mode of communication for colonists trying to keep up with the latest royal taxes and, later, circulating plans to declare independence. Benjamin Franklin, who owned his own printing press in Philadelphia, believed the press was a crucial “engine” of the revolution. 

In declaring independence, the Founders made freedom of the press a fundamental right for Americans. This idea was important, not only to leaders such as Franklin, but also Thomas Jefferson, an intellectual who regularly sought out books and pamphlets in his own quest for self-education. Jefferson knew that freedom of expression and a press liberated to print the truth were key to the future of the newborn United States. “Where the press is free, and every man able to read,” Jefferson wrote in 1816, “all is safe.”


Weekly Discoveries

  1. Learn about available townland records to add generations to your family tree with the free virtual presentation “Irish Genealogy: Exploring Townlands.”

  2. Did you have an ancestor who may have deserted the military?  If so, you may be able to locate them in the newly available collection, “U.S., WWII Army Deserters Pay Cards, 1943-1945.”

  3. 10 things we learned about our human ancestors in 2020.

  4. One of the country’s oldest publications, York Daily Record, was first published 225 years ago, with a history that began as a German-language newspaper.

  5. Register in advance for the full-day St. George’s Day England Research Seminar, which includes, among other topics, “That's English?! Reading Old Handwriting.”


Newspaper Research -  Invaluable to the Family Historian

In pursuit of the answers to the genealogical mysteries of our ancestors, we commonly refer to the various records that were created over the span of their lives. Census records, vital records, immigration records, and the like are the cornerstones of our research and, therefore, key sources for understanding our ancestors.  This is fundamental research and an essential step in the process of documenting their lives, but each of these types of records has one thing in common: they are all forms.  As such, they are designed to identify very specific facts for predetermined categories, leaving little room for auxiliary details.  The form documents are great sources, but they don’t always provide all of the facts.  

This is where newspapers come in! Historic newspapers can provide a wealth of information, as the details included in articles and announcements were not restricted to merely what would fit into a standardized field on a form and instead allowed for all details pertinent to the subject at hand to be shared. They can not only provide additional information and context, but oftentimes are responsible for providing clues which lead to previously unknown documents. In addition to the more commonly sought newspaper publishings of obituaries, marriage announcements or probate notices, researchers should also seek the less obvious items, such as social news, birth announcements, military updates, classifieds or business advertisements.

If lucky, the newspapers have been indexed with either databases created manually by humans or through the use of Optical Character Recognition software (OCR), both of which can include errors.  The possibility of these potential errors should be kept in mind when conducting searches. Commonly mistakes with OCR include pairs of letters having similar shape to other letters, such: as cl for d, rn for m, nn for m, ol for d, vv for w and li for h.

When searching be methodical and exhaustive, especially in the quest for an obituary.  Just because an obituary, death notice or funeral announcement is located, does not mean that there is not a better one out there. Oftentimes there are additional publications which provide different versions, such as a publication in a nearby community, or in the location of residence of a close family member.  Other times there is a short death notice or obituary published in a morning edition and a more detailed version is printed in the evening edition, or even the next day’s issue. In the examples shown below, the third time was a charm!  The first two articles located provided scant details, but diligence paid off and the third one revealed bountiful information about the deceased. New details included a specific location of birth and previously unknown family members who had remained in their native country, paving the way for more accurate results in records there.

Funeral notices and obituary for a single individual, published in two different publications over a four day span of time. Displayed in the order located.  Left:  Funeral notice for Mrs. Delia Halpin.  Center:  Funeral notice for Mrs. Timothy Halpin.  Right:  Obituary for Mrs. Timothy Halpin.

Be comprehensive by searching for multiple variants of an ancestor’s name.  Though in official records, they may have been known as James Benjamin Smith, a newspaper article may have published their name in various forms, such as James Smith, James B. Smith, J. B. Smith, Ben Smith, Jim Smith or J. Smith.  In the case of females, it was common, as illustrated in the funeral and obituary notices above, for them to be recorded not only under a nickname or initials, but potentially using the name of her spouse. If the husband’s name is known, in addition to the standard variants for the subject, also search for variants of the husband’s name, such as Mrs. James B. Smith, Mrs. Jim Smith, and so on.

As mentioned earlier, newspapers can open doors to information that may never have been discovered otherwise.  One such case began in search for an obituary of a mother lost due to complications from the flu, coming at the end of the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1920.  Searches initially revealed a “card of thanks” type announcement where the family was thanking everyone for their kindness following the death of their mother (the research subject) and Marvin.  Who was Marvin?  No living family members had ever heard of anyone in the family named Marvin.  Further research found that three generations of the family resided together and the day that the funeral of the research subject, Lucretia, was to take place, her two-year-old grandson, Marvin, succumbed to the same horrible illness.  As a result, Lucretia’s funeral was postponed to allow for further preparations, resulting in a double funeral honoring the grandmother and grandson together.  Though the original notice and subsequent obituaries found for Marvin and Lucretia did not reveal all of these details, they were responsible for revealing that Marvin ever existed and led to pursuit of additional records, revealing details that would have been lost to time otherwise.

Card of Thanks and obituaries published for two different individuals, published in a single publication over a five-day span of time. Displayed in the order located.  Left:  Card of Thanks for Lucretia Ernsperger and Marvin Harlin.  Center:  Obituary for Marvin Harlin.  Right:  Obituary for Mrs. Albert Ernsperger.

There are numerous sources for historic newspapers where you may try your newly learned search methods that can be accessed for free, including The Library of Congress’ Chronicling America and  Google News Archive, in addition to state or university archives, such as The Gateway to Oklahoma History or the Wyoming Digital Newspaper Collection, among others.  Be thorough in your search for newspaper collections. If not available online digitally, they can often be accessed on microfilm through local libraries, many of which offer interlibrary loans.


Weekly Tip

Utilizing Boolean search techniques can sometimes reveal information that would otherwise not be found and is a necessary tool in the arsenal of a successful family historian. Learn more about utilizing smarter search techniques in our blog post How to Conduct Successful Google Searches, These methods should be used for newspaper database searches, in addition to the internet browser searches referenced in the article.

Additional tips for locating your ancestors in newspapers can be found in our blog post, Genealogy on Deadline: Newspapers Bring Ancestors to Life.


Past Issues


Sources….Duh!!

Deutsches Historisches Museum: (https://www.dhm.de/ : accessed 28 January 2021), “First Printing in German of the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America, July 4, 1776:  German Language Printing in the American Colonies up to the Declaration of lndependence (part 2)” 

JSTOR (https://www.jstor.org/ : accessed 28 January 2021), The German Press in Pennsylvania and the American Revolution.”

William S. Reese,The Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America (https://www.abaa.org/ : accessed 28 January 2021), “The First Hundred Years of Printing in British North America: Printers and Collectors.” 

The Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/ : accessed 28 January 2021), The Germans in America.”

American Antiquarian Society (https://americanantiquarian.org/ : accessed 28 January 2021), “Colonial Print Culture.”   

"Mrs Delia Halpin" The Springfield Union (Springfield, Massachusetts), 4 October 1961, digital images, GenealogyBank (https://genealogybank.com : accessed 27 January 2021), citing print edition, p. 24, col. 4. 

"Mrs Timothy Halpin" The Springfield Union (Springfield, Massachusetts), 2 October 1961, digital images, GenealogyBank (https://genealogybank.com : accessed 27 January 2021), citing print edition, p. 8, col. 3. 

"Mrs Timothy Halpin" The Springfield Sunday Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts), 1 October 1961, digital images, GenealogyBank (https://genealogybank.com : accessed 27 January 2021), citing print edition, sec. A, p. 22, col. 5. 

"Card of Thanks" South Bend News-Times (South Bend,Indiana), 1 February 1920, digital images, Newspapers.com (https://newspapers.com : accessed 28 January 2021), citing print edition, p. 11, col. 5. 

"Marvin Harlin" South Bend News-Times (South Bend,Indiana), 29 January 1920, digital images, Newspapers.com (https://newspapers.com : accessed 28 January 2021), citing print edition, p. 12, col. 2. 

"Mrs. Albert Alexander" South Bend News-Times (South Bend,Indiana), 27 January 1920, digital images, Newspapers.com (https://newspapers.com : accessed 28 January 2021), citing print edition, p. 9, col. 2.


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