Academic journal article Early American Studies

Between Script and Specie: Cadwallader Colden's Printing Method and the Production of Permanent, Correct Knowledge

Academic journal article Early American Studies

Between Script and Specie: Cadwallader Colden's Printing Method and the Production of Permanent, Correct Knowledge

Article excerpt

In his award-winning 1998 study, The Nature of the Book, Adrian Johns challenged historians to rethink print as an early modern social construction rather than the automatic outcome of Gutenberg's fifteenth-century invention. Johns positioned himself against Elizabeth Eisenstein, who in 1979 had put the printing press at the center of history by polemically reinterpreting the Renaissance, Reformation, and Scientific Revolution as consequences of the turn from script to print. As Johns saw it, Eisenstein's sweeping argument rested on a false assumption that, unlike script, print preserved knowledge in a stable, reliable fashion. Johns countered that any such "fixity" was a contingent and local quality. In The Nature of the Book he detailed how authors, publishers, booksellers, and readers had labored to make printed information trustworthy in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century London.1

Building on Johns's insights, this article aims to extend our understanding of the social construction of print by examining how attitudes toward books were formed in relation to specie as well as script in the eighteenth-century British Atlantic.2 A trans -Atlantic perspective is necessary when we consider that governmental printing of paper money was pioneered in America. Reacting to a lack of specie and the costs of imperial warfare, colonial officials issued printed currency before their European counterparts. In 1685 Quebec authorities allowed stamped playing cards to be used as legal tender. Five years later, in a move that sparked a sixty-year-long public discussion about printed currency, the Massachusetts General Court emitted paper bills to meet the costs of a failed military expedition against French Canada. Massachusetts was, as one historian has put it, "the first society in the Western world to wrestle with the complexities of paper money."3 As printed currency emissions occurred in other British colonies during the eighteenth century, public debate over paper money coursed through North America.

Although a considerable body of scholarship now exists on the cultural effects of paper currency in early modern Britain, historians have yet to seriously confront how the anxieties that resulted from the rise of paper money altered seventeenth- and eighteenth-century perceptions of print.4 To open up this issue, the first section of this essay focuses on a printing method invented around 1740 by Cadwallader Colden, a surveyor general, provincial councilman, and eventual lieutenant governor of colonial New York. Colden's printing technique required the imprinting of metal plates through a process of stamping en creuse). Colden argued that these marked copper plates, which he thought could be easily stored until they were needed to print the pages of a book, allowed for the sorts of short, gradual print runs that were simply not cost effective for most printing houses of his day. He urged publishers to produce a small number of slow-selling, accurate tomes rather than a myriad of cheap, poor-quality books. Colden claimed that the best books retained a value as real and fixed as any precious metal. His printing scheme therefore overcame a conceptual opposition of metal and print that was crucial to contemporary discussions of paper money.

The final two parts of this article examine the reasons Colden pursued a print culture dominated by permanent, correct knowledge, as well as for his plan's failure to resonate with mid-eighteenth-century printers on both sides of the Atlantic. I will argue that Colden's conservative politics and intellectual ambitions largely motivated his printing invention. He deeply disliked the partisan newspapers that appeared in New York beginning in the 1730s, and he also wanted to achieve lasting fame as the author of a grand, philosophical system. But Colden failed to appreciate fully the business interests of printers. Benjamin Franklin and William Strahan, two partners who were working to establish a trans-Atlantic print trade in the mid-eighteenth century, gave Colden's scheme short shrift. …

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