The Power of Printing
I'm a little dubious of the term "information scarcity," as if there was ever a time when people did not have loads of news and gossip coming their way. Back in the stagecoach era, when we all lived in close-knit, walkable communities (no need for terms like "new urbanist" back then), news and views flowed over fences and across tables, out of taverns and churches and docks.
Still, the person in charge of the local printing press must have possessed a type of authority that's difficult for us to grasp today. A printer was the hub, the establisher and keeper of records, the validator of all that was official, authoritative and lasting. The word imprimatur—from the Latin, "let it be printed"—connotes something being correct, proper, approved. The local printer did more than create documents; he created significance. Merely having a press lent importance to a town, and the more printers it had, the more important it was.
My thoughts were led in this direction by a gravestone I encountered this week in New Bern, N.C. The second oldest town in the state, New Bern was the colonial capital and briefly the state capital after independence. As an important port and the largest town for many miles up and down the East Coast, New Bern became a major center of commerce and culture in the early years of the republic.
One of the town's most important citizens was James Davis, who "established the art of printing in North Carolina," creating the first newspaper, book and magazine. As the printer for the state, he was no doubt the leading private government contractor, the Boeing or Northrop Grumman of his day. He was also a sheriff, legislator, judge, postmaster and producer of currency. As with his contemporary in Philadelphia, Ben Franklin, I have to wonder how many of these positions of authority were outgrowths of his profession.
We all know the importance of the press to early America. Appreciating the role of printers adds to our understanding of why freedom of the press was, and is, key to American democracy.