The Crazy Story Behind the First Book Published in the (Future) United States

Library of Congress // Public Domain
Library of Congress // Public Domain

An escape from England, an indentured servant with a mysterious past, and an untimely death while crossing the Atlantic. While these might sound like plot points for the latest historical spy thriller, they’re actually real events related to The Bay Psalm Book, a Puritan hymnal—the first book printed in what would become the United States.

LEAVING ENGLAND FOR AN UNCERTAIN NEW WORLD

Reverend Jose Glover was approaching his 40th birthday, and he was in a rut. For several years, he had been Rector of Sutton, and he found himself increasingly drawn to the Puritans, a group that believed the Church of England, which had broken from the Catholic Church in 1534, was still too Catholic. So in 1634, a year after King Charles I had ordered clergymen to read the Book of Sports (which largely served as an anti-Puritan text detailing acceptable Sunday activities) to their congregations, Glover was, along with dozens of others, suspended for refusing to read it [PDF]. Not long after, he resigned and was out of a job altogether.

He decided that the Massachusetts Bay Colony was the change he was looking for. Settled just a few years earlier, it was a haven for Puritans escaping persecution from the more establishment elements within the Church of England. Although it was risky to leave his life and livelihood behind for an uncertain future, the New World offered religious freedom and a fresh start.

To finance his move across the Atlantic, Glover gave sermons and raised cash from both parishioners and friends in England and Holland. With the funds, he bought a press, type, paper, ink, and other supplies he would need to start a printing press in Massachusetts Bay. (Why he chose printing as his new profession is unknown.) Before leaving for New England, Glover also hired Stephen Daye, an indentured locksmith in his forties, to come with him.

Like many parts of this story, why Glover hired a locksmith to help him establish a printing press is a mystery, and not enough is known of Daye's past to make things any clearer. Some historians have speculated that Daye was a descendent of renowned Protestant printer John Daye and worked as an apprentice in a London printing shop. Other scholars, though, argue that there’s no evidence that Daye was related to the famous printer or that he was ever a printer’s apprentice. It’s even possible that Daye was hired exclusively as a locksmith, and was forced into the printing business by what happened next.

In 1638, Glover set sail for Massachusetts Bay on a ship called the John of London, traveling with his wife, Elizabeth Harris Glover, their children, Daye and his family, a few servants, and the printing press. But Glover never made it: En route, he caught a bad fever and died.

His plans to set up a printing press didn’t perish with him, though. After the John of London arrived in Massachusetts in the late summer of 1638, Elizabeth fulfilled her late husband’s wishes, establishing a print shop in a house on what is today Cambridge’s Holyoke Street, near the college that later became Harvard University. It would become known as the Cambridge Press.

The business partners were an odd pair: Daye was a barely literate locksmith, Elizabeth a widow with no business experience. We know that Daye’s teenaged son, Matthew, worked at the press, but it’s unclear how they ran the press or how they split their duties—some scholars credit Stephen Daye as America’s first publisher, while others call Elizabeth the “Mother of the American Press”—but run it they did. For their first job, they printed “The Freeman’s Oath,” a large sheet of paper with Massachusetts Bay’s citizenship oath, in early 1639. They then printed a pamphlet that was an abridged, primitive version of an almanac.

After that, they tackled The Bay Psalm Book.

MAKING AMERICA'S FIRST BOOK

In 1620, the Pilgrims who sailed on the Mayflower most likely brought Bibles with them, but there's no definitive evidence about which versions (or how many) they actually brought. By the 1630s, most colonists in the Massachusetts Bay Colony were worshipping with various hymnals they had brought from England, including a 1562 edition of The Whole Book of Psalms. Dozens of members of the Massachusetts clergy, including John Eliot and Richard Mather, wanted a hymnal that more accurately conveyed the true, literal word of God. In the clergy’s view, the 1562 psalm book was outdated and poorly translated from the original Hebrew.

To feel closer to God in their strange new land, Eliot and Mather wanted a new book that didn’t remind them of the religious constraints they faced in England. So in 1636, they began translating Hebrew psalms into English, creating The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre, colloquially called The Bay Psalm Book. When it came time to print the tome, they turned to the only press in town: Elizabeth and Daye's.

Elizabeth spent £33 (approximately $7000 today) to publish the book, a simple arrangement of 37 sheets bound with calf-skin. The book (which you can read here) was rife with spelling and spacing errors, due to technological limitations and Elizabeth and Daye’s lack of typographical training. Still, despite its awkwardness, it was a smash hit. The Cambridge Press sold all 1700 first edition copies of The Bay Psalm Book, and Puritan congregations used the book to worship God and teach children to memorize the psalms. The book was sold at the Cambridge Press’s office and at Hezekiah Usher’s bookstore in Cambridge, the first bookstore in New England.

After publishing The Bay Psalm Book, Elizabeth and Daye published a 1641 almanac, a catechism prayer, and a set of Massachusetts laws. But after Elizabeth’s death in 1643 and Daye’s retirement in late 1646, one of Daye’s sons took over the press, and it was most likely dismantled in the mid-1700s.

Today, just 11 first editions of The Bay Psalm Book survive, and they have broken sales records at auctions. Thanks to Elizabeth and Daye’s work, The Bay Psalm Book helped New World settlers feel close to God during a time of uncertainty and helped usher in a uniquely American identity and literary tradition, distinct from England. Not bad for a tiny book published by a widow and an indentured servant.

Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?

iStock/bonchan
iStock/bonchan

The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

12 Thought-Provoking Gifts for History Buffs

The Unemployed Philosophers Guild / LEGO / Amazon
The Unemployed Philosophers Guild / LEGO / Amazon

If you're looking for a gift for the person who can't get enough history in their life, we think you'll find something on this list. From an atlas of the United States's National Parks to a book that will allow one to record their own family genealogy, these presents will both enlighten and entertain even the history buffs who already own every Theodore Roosevelt biography and Titanic exposé.

1. Atlas of the National Parks; $59

National Parks atlas
National Geographic / Amazon

This stunning atlas from National Geographic invites armchair explorers into all 61 national parks, from Gates of the Arctic to Dry Tortugas, American Samoa to Acadia. Each entry features a brand-new map and information about the park’s character, covering archaeology, geology, human history, wildlife, and more. All of which are illustrated with amazing photographs. You can order it now, and according to Amazon, the book will be in stock December 24.

Buy It: Amazon

2. Homesick Library Candle; $30

Library candle
UncommonGoods

Remind your favorite history buff of that book project they've been working on for many years with a library scent that doesn’t evoke mildewed paper and anxiety. Homesick’s hand-poured soy wax candle features spicy notes of orange, nutmeg, sandalwood, and amber.

Buy It: UncommonGoods

3. Spectacular Women Ornaments; $22 Each

Spectacular women ornaments
UncommonGoods

Your giftee will need to make some space on the Christmas tree for these ornaments depicting amazing women in history. Artist Gulnara Kydyrmyshova and her team of textile artisans in Kyrgyzstan make each ornament by hand from local wool. You can choose Florence Nightingale, Jane Austen, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, or all four.

Buy It: UncommonGoods

4. Homemade Gin Kit; $50

Gin making kit
UncommonGoods

Just in time for holiday parties, this DIY gin-making kit includes two elegant bottles, stoppers, a selection of dried herbs and spices, and mixing tools. The giftee supplies the vodka, which acts like a blank slate, to be flavored with juniper berries, coriander seeds, rosemary, rose hips, and more.

Buy It: UncommonGoods

5. Genealogy Organizer Book; $9

Genealogy organizer book
Amazon

Here’s a genealogy gift for the holidays that doesn’t require handing over genetic data to private corporations! This handy book includes organizational charts for tracing one’s family tree back five generations. Plus, there are fill-in family group pages and sheets to record personal memories.

Buy It: Amazon

6. Great Lakes 3D Wood Nautical Chart; $178

Great Lakes 3D nautical chart
Amazon

Up to eight layers of wood are used to demonstrate the depths of each of the five Great Lakes in this unusual topographical map, which also depicts the major rivers and towns of the region. If these lakes don’t float your boat, 3D maps of Cape Cod, the Hawaiian Islands, Puget Sound, the Chesapeake Bay, and other waterways are available.

Buy It: Amazon

7. Black Lives 1900: W.E.B. Du Bois at the Paris Exposition; $35

W.E.B. Du Bois art book
Amazon

With colorful, hand-drawn infographics, civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois illustrated the progress and challenges of African Americans in the South at the beginning of the 20th century. This beautiful volume pairs his maps and charts, which were displayed at the 1900 Paris Exposition, with contemporary photographs of black people and communities.

Buy It: Amazon

8. Three Mini Notebooks; $15

Three map notebooks
Amazon

An explorer should always have a pen and paper at the ready. Make your giftee’s travels memorable with this set of three pocket-sized notebooks, each bound with a vintage map design on the cover and blank, lined, or graph pages.

Buy It: Amazon

9. Penny-Farthing Watch; $40

Penny-farthing watch
Amazon

It’s been said that bicycles kickstarted the women’s equality movement by giving ladies the means to explore their world. Celebrate that history by giving your fave cycling enthusiast this cute watch, which depicts a penny-farthing, the Victorian precursor to modern bikes. The leather band and analog face complete the watch’s old-timey look.

Buy It: Amazon

10. Shakespearean Insults Mug; $14

Shakespearean insults mug
New York Public Library Shop

This 14-ounce ceramic mug includes 30 Elizabethan insults that you can feel free to use any morning pre-coffee—but you may need to reassure you gift recipient that you’re not actually calling them a “canker-blossom” or a “lump of foul deformity” when they open the box.

Buy It: New York Public Library Shop

11. LEGO White House; $222

LEGO White House
LEGO / Amazon

This LEGO set is based on the White House design by James Hoban, which was selected by George Washington back on July 16, 1792. And now, with over 500 pieces, you can recreate your own version of this iconic building. And when you're done, the set also includes a booklet highlighting interesting facts about the White House.

Buy It: Amazon

12. A History of New York in 27 Buildings; $20

NYC buildings book
Amazon

Stories behind such famous NYC icons as the Flatiron Building or the Empire State Building are well known. Those skyline staples appear in this book, but author Sam Roberts also dives deeper into other notable buildings that changed the course of the city’s history—like the Tweed Courthouse, the Marble Palace, and the Coney Island Boardwalk. (For a similar approach to urban history, see the new book The Seine: The River That Made Paris).

Buy It: Amazon

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