University of Virginia Library

To this day the question of who first cast type in America remains unsettled. Although the claims in behalf of Abel Buell, of Connecticut, are the strongest, there remains an element of doubt.[2]

That we cannot be certain is due largely to a statement in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter for September 7, 1769, that "Printing Types are also made by Mr. Mitchelson of . . . [Boston] equal to any imported from Great-Britain." This casual remark seems destined to cast a lengthening shadow over the problem of Buell's priority. It is given further weight by the statement made by Isaiah Thomas in his History of Printing in America that "An attempt was made to establish a foundry for casting types in Boston about 1768, by a Mr. Mitchelson from Scotland, but he did not succeed."

The "Mr. Mitchelson" of the Massachusetts Gazette and of Isaiah Thomas has been plausibly identified by Mr. Lawrence Wroth as David Mitchelson, who had arrived in Boston from Scotland in October, 1764. He was a member of the religious sect called Sandemanians, the leader of which, Robert Sandeman, came to America at the same time. By trade he was a goldsmith and lapidary—like Gutenberg, and like Abel Buell as well—and thereby qualified, at least by precedent, to turn his skill to casting type.


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In discussing Mitchelson's possible merits as a type founder, in the appendix to his Abel Buell of Connecticut, Mr. Wroth suggests that Mitchelson was working in co-operation with John Mein, the Boston bookseller and partner in the printing shop of Mein and Fleeming.[3] That Wroth does so is on the basis of a letter from Benjamin Gale to Ezra Stiles of April 1, 1769, where Gale writes, "However as Buel is jealous of his being intercepted by Mein you will not mention Bismuths entring that Composition." The context implies that Mein, like Buell, was interested in the founding of type, and Mr. Wroth is able to assume that Mein was linked with Mitchelson's activities.

The conjunction is a reasonable one. Mein and Mitchelson were probably acquainted, for they apparently were fellow-passengers aboard the shop George and James which brought Mein to America. That Mein was also a Sandemanian is not known, but a member of the Sandeman family was a partner in the first shop he set up in Boston. His subsequent partner, John Fleeming, had also come to New England earlier in 1764, and had, with William McAlpine, printed Some Thoughts on Christianity, the first work by Robert Sandeman to be published in America.

But can we, even so, find any evidence that Mitchelson did cast type, to substantiate his reported efforts? And are we justified in connecting him with John Mein?

Before Mein set up his shop with John Fleeming he apparently employed William McAlpine to do his printing. Early in 1767 he and Fleeming began to issue works with a joint imprint which are distinctive in a curious bold-face roman type so unusual as to make its presence valid evidence of Mein and Fleeming printing even when their imprint does not appear on the title-page.[4] As a type face it is a prototype of that which became so popular in the early nineteenth century, when it came to be known in the printing trade as "Scotch" type.

The need for accounting for the Mein and Fleeming type is perhaps the strongest support for Mitchelson's actual activity as a type founder and for linking him to John Mein that exists. For if Mitchelson did not cast the type, who did?

Although Mr. Wroth has noted the use of this bold-face roman only in Boston at a slightly later period (when the type may have come from Fleeming's possession after Mein's departure for England late in 1769), and by John Carter in Providence, it does occur in other printing of the 1770's. For instance, John


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Howe, the printer set up by the British forces in Newport during their occupation of the town, possessed a supply, probably brought from Boston.

More significant is the fact that Alexander Purdie, of Williamsburg, like-wise employed it in his Virginia Gazette and elsewhere, such as the title-page of The Proceedings of the Convention of Delegates . . . the 6th of May, 1776.[5] John Dunlap, of Philadelphia, is also known to have used it.

Despite the fact that Dunlap came from northern Ireland (which was, none the less, culturally and economically related to Scotland), it is noteworthy that Alexander Purdie, like both Mein and Fleeming, was a Scotchman. If our bold-face roman type was not cast in America, it is probable that it came from Scotland, as suggested by the popular name given to its descendants. According to Isaiah Thomas, Fleeming in 1766 had returned to Scotland to secure printing supplies: that these included type follows.

A comprehensive examination of Scottish books of the period has not been feasible, but it may be noted that the first edition of the Encyclopœdia Britannica, the publication of which was completed in 1771, is in the same bold-face roman. Scattered instances of its use are found in other British works such as William Woty's Poetical Works (London, G. Scott, 1770), and for the text of John Tait's Poetical Legends (London, J. Donaldson, 1775). That the printer of the latter, John Donaldson, was a Scotchman may be deduced on the basis of his name alone; but before moving to London he had in fact been a printer in Edinburgh. On the other hand, the London, 1767, edition of Tissot's Advice to the People, cited by Mr. Wroth as an English use of the type, proves to be an American edition with a false imprint.[6]

In their Catalogue of Specimens of Printing Types (London, 1935), W. T. Berry and A. F. Johnson list no Scottish examples of the 1760's or 1770's other than those issued by Alexander Wilson. A comparison of Wilson's faces with the Mein and Fleeming types eliminates effectively any likelihood that Wilson produced the latter. During this period there was, however, another type founder in Scotland, a relatively obscure person named John Baine. Mr. George H. Bushnell, Librarian of St. Andrews University, is currently engaged on a biography of him, but as yet very little is known regarding Baine. At one time a partner of Alexander Wilson, Baine appears to have been active many years before the appearance of his first recorded type specimen book, A Specimen of Printing Types by John Baine & Grandson & Co. (Edinburgh, 1787). Of it a unique copy, which belonged to Isaiah Thomas, is preserved at the American Antiquarian Society. A comparison of Mein's type specimen sheet of ca. 1768 with the Baine types leaves no more than a perfunctory doubt that it was from Baine that Mein and Fleeming secured their type.


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The possibility that the Mein and Fleeming type may none the less have been cast in America from matrices supplied by Baine is largely disposed of by at least one strange phenomenon observed in printing done by their shop. In setting A Sermon Delivered July 31st, 1768, by Sylvanus Conant (Boston, 1768), the compositor, probably following the author's copy, set the words "Lord" and "God" in large capitals throughout the work. Its theological nature, needless to say, gave frequent occasion for their appearance. A close examination of some of the capital O's reveals a slight deformity at the foot of the letter which on further scrutiny proves to be a vestige of the tail of a Q. The demand for capital O's for the words "Lord" and "God" may well have taxed the resources of the shop: in any event, the Q's were obviously cut down either for this or an earlier need. The same modified Q's will be found in the running titles of Mein's newspaper, the Boston Chronicle, which were kept as standing type during the early months of its career. Amusing as this is as a demonstration of the printer's ingenuity, its importance for us lies in the fact that, if matrices were available, to cast the needed O's would have been easier than to file off the tails of the Q's.

Whatever the truth may be regarding the newspaper reference to Mitchelson, there is even less reason for linking him with the Scotch type of Mein and Fleeming, in face of a recognized source for it in the foundry of John Baine. It is perhaps wisest and safest to accept Isaiah Thomas's statement that in his efforts to set up a foundry Mitchelson did not succeed. If Mein were associated with him, then Mein had other more pressing problems on his hands, for the year 1769 found Mein engaged in political controversy which led to his being mobbed in the streets of Boston and to an ignominious flight to England.