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The Bay Psalm Book

November 21, 2013—The first printing press in what would become the United States of America set sail for Boston Harbor in 1638 with the Rev. Joseph Glover and his family on board. Joseph died on the journey; his widow Elizabeth and Stephen Day (sometimes Daye), an indentured locksmith, established the press on what is now Holyoke Street in Harvard Square. The press produced the first book printed in America, the Bay Psalm Book (1640).

(Please scroll down to see a slideshow about the book.)

Harvard's Houghton Library holds one of the surviving copies of the Bay Psalm Book—1700 were printed and only 11 remain. Thus, this book is much more rare than other landmarks of printing such as the Gutenburg Bible (49 copies) or Shakespeare's First Folio (about 200 copies). To mark Sotheby's auction of the Old South Church's copy on November 26, 2013, Harvard has its copy on display from November 22 through December 14 in Houghton Library. Admission to Houghton Library is free; please click here for hours.


Stephen Day Press

When the John of London set sail from Hull, England for the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the summer of 1638, Joseph Glover, a Puritan minister, and his wife Elizabeth were on board, along with their five children. Stored in the ship's hold was a wooden printing press (pictured above), paper and lead alloy type. This small press was the first in British North America. (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.) 

Stephen Day Indenture

Also on board the John of London was Stephen Day (or Daye), the Glovers's indentured servant (his indenture paper, held by the Harvard University Archives, is pictured above) and his wife and children. Jose Glover died during the voyage and his widow, Elizabeth, set up the first press in Cambridge, with approval from magistrates and elders. Day, a locksmith, became the pressman--and America's first printer. 

Haynes Mansion Newtowne

Elizabeth Glover--a rare widow with property--settled in Newtowne (now Cambridge) at the location pictured above, now home to Peet's Coffee & Tea. It abuts Winthrop Park; John Winthrop led the Winthrop Fleet, the 11 ships that carried about 700 Puritans, including the Glovers, from England. (Image courtesy of Peet's Coffee & Tea.) 

15 Holyoke Street (Crooked Lane)

The press was set up at the house Elizabeth Glover purchased for Stephen Day on Crooked Lane--now 15 Holyoke St., pictured above, part of Harvard's Holyoke Center. It is likely that Stephen was assisted by his son Matthew, who may have trained as a printer in England. Their work was rather crude--the type was worn, the handmade paper was uneven, the ink was bad.


In March 1639, John Winthrop wrote in his journal, "A printing house was begun at Cambridge by one Daye, at the charge of Mr. Glover, who died on seas hitherward. The first thing which was printed was the freeman's oath; the next was an almanack made for New England...the next was the Psalms newly turned into metre." The freeman's oath was the first item printed on the press--householding men over 20 had to swear it to become a citizen of the Colony. The almanack Winthrop referenced is unknown, but likely similar to the one pictured above, printed in 1663 in Cambridge, held by Harvard's Houghton Library

Bay Psalm Book

The Massachusetts settlers brought English Psalm books with them--singing the Psalms was an important part of Protestant worship. The Puritans, however, thought the translations did not accurately reflect the original Hebrew. A new translation was made, and The Whole Booke of Psalmes, printed on Elizabeth Glover's press by Stephen Day, became the first book printed in America. (Image courtesy of Sotheby's.)  

Bay Psalm Book 2

The Whole Booke of Psalmes, known today as the Bay Psalm Book, was authored by several men, according to Cotton Mather in 1702, but its chief authors are believed to be John Cotton, Richard Mather, Thomas Welde, John Eliot, John Wilson and Peter Bulkeley. (Image courtesy of the Harvard Gazette.) 

Bay Psalm Book Contemporary Correction

The Bay Psalm Book, printed on a small press in a small shop on the edge of the British empire, was a considerable accomplishment. It was adopted by nearly all congregations in the southern part of Massachusetts Bay Colony and helped to mold a new society. Yet, the book itself was deeply flawed--the type is blurred, there are typographical errors and some of the lines of text are curved. The image above, from the copy held by Harvard's Houghton Library, shows a handwritten correction made soon after the book was printed.  

Bay Psalm Book 3

Stephen Day was not an experienced printer, and this shows in the finished product: erratic spelling and poorly-inked type abounds. In the Houghton copy, several pages were printed in the wrong order, though he seems to have discovered the problem relatively early in the process, as most other copies have the mistake corrected. The importance of the Bay Psalm Book thus lies not in its aesthetic qualities, but in its great historical significance, and in the evidence that it provides about the lives and work of the early members of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. (Image courtesy of the Harvard Gazette.)


Elizabeth Glover married Henry Dunster, the president of Harvard, in 1641. After Elizabeth died in 1643, her land and property, including the printing press, was inherited by Henry. He moved the press to the president's house at the south end of what is now Harvard Yard in 1645. It was used to print college materials such as Commencement broadsides. The Quaestiones pictured above, held by the Harvard University Archives, was printed in 1655, presumably on the same press that printed the Bay Psalm Book. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Harvard Commencement exercises for Master's degree students included Quaestiones--a single question was chosen by each candidate to be discussed in the affirmative or negative. 

Bay Psalm Book Gift Template

The copy of the Bay Psalm Book held by Harvard was a gift from Middlecott Cooke, Harvard Class of 1723. He donated the book in October 1764, soon after a fire destroyed Harvard Hall and, with it, most of Harvard's library books. (Image courtesy of the Harvard Gazette.)

Cooke and Jackson Book List

Harvard's records include a list of the books saved from the 1764 fire because they were in circulation, as well as a list of books donated to the College in the fire's aftermath. The document pictured above (held by the Harvard University Archives) lists the books given by Middlecott Cooke; one is "Psalms in Metre," which presumably refers to the Bay Psalm Book held by Harvard today.

Prepping Bay Psalm Book for Display

The Bay Psalm Book (in the red housing) sits aside the cradle custom-made for its display. The thin plastic strips gently secure the book to the cradle.

Bay Psalm Book on Display in Houghton Library

The image above shows Harvard's copy of the Bay Psalm Book, opened to the 23rd Psalm, on display in Houghton Library--the first time it has been available for public viewing in more than 20 years. It will remain on display through December 14, 2013. Admission to Houghton is free; please click here for hours.