First Music Book Printed in New World - History

First Music Book Printed in New World - History

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An Ordinarium is published in a printing press in Mexico. The book includes music for church services.

A brief history of printing. From the 15th century to today

Far fewer people would be able to read, many would still speak Latin, news of historic events would never have reached us, and the greatest scientific discoveries would have arrived centuries late. If printing hadn’t been invented, that is.

Our blog has a section called “World of Printing” which is packed full of fascinating facts for ink and paper enthusiasts. One glaring omission, however, was an article covering the history of printing. But that’s now fixed: in this post we travel through time and, stage by stage, we look at the most important technological breakthroughs in printing. It’s an absorbing story spanning fifteen centuries, so we’ll have to content ourselves with an overview of the most important events.

Gutenberg's Life

Johann Gutenberg was born around the year 1400 into an upper-class family of goldsmiths in Mainz, Germany. Most of his life is a mystery to us, and much of what we do know comes to us through legal documents.

For example, he was taken to court after promising to marry a young woman and backing out. He also owed money for a get-rich-quick scheme in which he sold polished metal mirrors to pilgrims on their way to Aachen Cathedral, claiming the mirrors could capture holy light.

Information from these and other legal documents, as well as intense scholarly investigation, suggest Gutenberg was a man passionately dedicated to the idea of the mass production of printed pages, an inventor who borrowed money in order to see his work through to completion—and one who was extremely secretive about his ideas.

One person who lent Gutenberg a substantial sum was Johann Fust, who eventually sued to get back his money and the accrued interest. He seems to have taken over the original press, which had been put up as collateral.

Gutenberg continued his printing career and appears to have continued modifying printing methods to enable additional efficiencies. At the end of his life, he was granted an allowance from the archbishop of Mainz for food and clothing, suggesting he lived out his days in relative comfort.

History of Printing Timeline

Substantive comments and suggestions provided by Abby Bainbridge, George Barnum, Barbara Beeton, Terry Belanger, Charles A. Bigelow, Frank Caserta, Douglas Charles, Sarah Chute, Walter Delaney, Erik Desmyter, Sue Durrell, Paul F. Gehl, Jeffrey D. Groves, John G. Henry, Howard Iron Works Museum, Amelia Hugill-Fontanel, Fritz Klinke, Joel Larson, Keelan Lightfoot, Mathieu Lommen, Se Eum Park, Stan Nelson, Xavier Querol, John Risseeuw, Helen Robinson, Paul Romaine, Frank J. Romano, Walker Rumble, Richard Saunders, Stephen O. Saxe, Ad Stijnman, Katherine Victoria Taylor, Philip Weimerskirch, Eric M. White, Colyn Wohlmut, Corinna Zeltsman.


Berry, W. Turner and H. Edmund Poole. Annuals of Printing, Blandford 1966

Chappell Warren. A Short History of the Printing Word, Hartley & Marks, 1999

Clair, Colin. A Chronology of Printing, Praeger, 1969

The GATF Encyclopedia of Graphic Communications. Graphic Arts Technical Foundation GATF Press, 1998

Celtic Psalter

The Celtic Psalter is described as Scotland’s Book of Kells. The pocket-sized book of Psalms is housed at the University of Edinburgh, where it went on public display in 2009 for the first time.

The book is thought to be have been created in the 11th century AD, making it Scotland’s oldest surviving book.

You can view pages of the Celtic Psalter on the University of Edinburgh website here.

Estimated age: 938 years old.

Gutenberg Bible

Gutenberg borrowed money from Johannes Fust to fund his project and in 1452, Fust joined Gutenberg as a partner to create books. They set about printing calendars, pamphlets and other ephemera.

In 1452, Gutenberg produced the one book to come out of his shop: a Bible. It’s estimated he printed 180 copies of the 1,300-paged Gutenberg Bible, as many as 60 of them on vellum. Each page of the Bible contained 42 lines of text in Gothic type, with double columns and featuring some letters in color.

For the Bible, Gutenberg used 300 separate molded letter blocks and 50,000 sheets of paper. Many fragments of the books survive. There are 21 complete copies of the Gutenberg Bible, and four complete copies of the vellum version.


Whether it is the wonderful memories that are attached to the precious hymns contained inside or it is the shaped notes that comprise each song, this timeless classic continues to be sung across our nation year after year. The Church Hymnal (which is commonly called the “red-back” hymnal because of its red cloth hard cover) is often featured in gospel music conventions and local church “red back hymnal singings” on a regular basis.

Pathway Press is the exclusive publisher of this beloved book. This 410 page shaped note hymnal includes a topical index that lists hymns appropriate to 14 different occasions including baptism, consecration, funerals, missionary, and testimony. It also features a general index that alphabetically lists more than 400 classic hymns. Literally, millions of Church Hymnals have been sold to lovers of gospel music the world over. These hymnals fit the needs of the congregation, choir, and soloist.

The Church Hymnal is also available in a large-print edition which opens flat for use at the piano, organ, and on the music director’s stand. Several songs were selected from the Church Hymnal to fill a red back hymnal listening CD. A split track of these songs is also available so that they can be sung in a local church setting.


With the growth of the Church of God and the success of Tennessee Music Printing Company during the 1940s, some ministers and laity requested the publication of a hymnal for the denomination. After some time and discussion, a hymnal committee was eventually formed which included Otis McCoy as editor and V.B. (Vep) Ellis and Zeno C. Tharp as assistant compilers. Ellis was a prominent minister, musician and songwriter within the Church of God, and Tharp was a well-know minister and elected official within the denomination.

The Church Hymnal was finally made available to the public in November of 1951. With a price of $1.50 per book, the initial printing consisted of 25,000 copies. The Hymnal was printed in shape notes only and bound with a maroon or green board cover. The maroon cover was the most popular choice and was the inspiration for the name “Red Back.”

As a result of the committee’s choice of songs as well as the need and desire for a hymnal of this type, the Church Hymnal was well received from its initial publication. In the first three months of publication, over 14,000 copies were sold. A second printing of 27,500 was available as early as May of 1952. Interestingly, the sale of 25,000 hymnals within the first five months occurred in a denomination with a United States membership of only 122,000 and a worldwide membership of less than 221,000 in 1951. Since its initial publication, over 6 million copies have been sold.

The Church Hymnal is probably the best single repository of gospel hymnody. It is comprised of 410 selections and is printed in the seven-shape-note format. Today, it remains one of the few hymnals using this unique style of notation.

As a result of the committee’s choice of songs as well as the need and desire for a hymnal of this type, the Church Hymnal was well received from its initial publication. In the first three months of publication, over 14,000 copies were sold. A second printing of 27,500 was available as early as May of 1952. Interestingly, the sale of 25,000 hymnals within the first five months occurred in a denomination with a United States membership of only 122,000 and a worldwide membership of less than 221,000 in 1951. Since its initial publication, over 6 million copies have been sold.

The Church Hymnal is probably the best single repository of gospel hymnody. It is comprised of 410 selections and is printed in the seven-shape-note format. Today, it remains one of the few hymnals using this unique style of notation.

Obsolete Printing Processes

There are a number of now-obsolete printing processes. One was hot-lead Linotype, once used to print newspapers. In that process, compositors worked on Linotype machines that melted lead metal to make type according to the information the operator put into the machine. After the print run of an issue of the newspaper was completed, the lead was reclaimed, melted, and used for the next composition process.

In the early days of the personal computer, the printers used were based on typewriter technology, using a "daisy wheel" or other form of impact printing. Dot matrix printers were also widely used because they were cheaper and faster than daisy wheel or other typewriter-like printers. That technology is now obsolete, having been succeeded by laser, ink jet, and other types of computer-based printers.

Prior to the introduction of inexpensive photocopying, the use of machines such as the "spirit duplicator," "hectograph," and "mimeograph" was common those techniques and equipment are now obsolete.

America’s First Book

Today, Sotheby’s will auction a copy of the first English-language book printed in America. “The Whole Booke of Psalmes,” or the Bay Psalm Book, as it is now known, is expected to sell for between fifteen and thirty million dollars, which would make it the most expensive book in the world.

The current record for the highest-priced printed book is not a Gutenberg Bible or a First Folio of Shakespeare but a copy of John James Audubon’s “Birds of America,” which sold for $11.5 million in 2010. The Bay Psalm Book is older and now rarer than Audubon’s catalogue of fowl only eleven of the original seventeen hundred copies survive.

Translated directly from Hebrew into English, the Bay Psalm Book was printed in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1640, less than twenty years after the Mayflower left Plymouth, England. It was the first book printed on the Puritan minister Joseph Glover’s press, the first such device to make the journey across the Atlantic. Although Glover died during the 1638 crossing, his widow, Elizabeth, inherited the press and saw to its installation. She established America’s first print shop in a little house on what is now Holyoke Street in Cambridge.

While Stephen Day is generally credited with printing America’s first book, he was only the operator and overseer of Elizabeth Glover’s press. The press was nothing remarkable, and the crude materials and nascent talents of its operators are reflected in the blurred type and typographical inconsistencies in its surviving books, of which the Bay Psalm Book is no exception. Take, for instance, that most essential of words: “PSALM,” which appears that way on the left-hand pages but is spelled “PSALME” on the right-hand pages.

The colonists brought many Psalters with them to the New World, but they quickly found those printings lacking. The hundred and fifty Psalms were divided among “thirty pious and learned Ministers” who labored to produce a verse translation that would be more faithful to the original Hebrew. Their efforts yielded the 1640 version that would become the Bay Psalm Book, which was then revised and reprinted nine times in the seventeenth century alone. The preface to the first edition, the one to be auctioned, states apologetically,

If therefore the verses are not alwayes so smooth and elegant as some may desire or expect let them consider that Gods Altar needs not our pollishings: Ex. 20. for wee have respected rather a plaine translation, then to smooth our verses with the sweetnes of any paraphrase, and soe have attended Conscience rather then Elegance, fidelity rather then poetry in translating the hebrew words into english language, and Davids poetry into english meetre.

There already one sees the peculiar poetry of erratic spellings and capitalizations that makes the Bay Psalm Book so charming, so authentically early Americana.

Not surprisingly, as it prepared for today’s auction, Sotheby’s has displayed the book with its pages opened to the Twenty-third Psalm. Look to those familiar verses and you can see just how strange the translation is, even relative to the King James Version, which had been completed just thirty years earlier, in 1611:

The Lord to mee a shepheard is,
want therefore shall not I,
Hee in the folds of tender-grasse,
doth cause mee downe to lie:
To waters calme me gently leads

To my ear, the shepherd is still caring and careful, but those “folds of tender-grasse”? Just down the street from where the Bay Psalm Book was printed is Harvard Yard, itself once a pasture for sheep and cattle. “Green pastures” might well have been most familiar, but the Bay Psalm Book translator’s desire for accuracy is confirmed by the contemporary translation by Robert Alter, himself fiercely dedicated to rescuing the original Hebrew: he chose “grass meadows.”

One can scrutinize every verse of the Bay Psalm Book online. The text rewards such study, but it does not explain why the first book printed in America was a Psalter. Psalters are an unfamiliar genre for many, even those who worship regularly. Psalm-singing had for centuries been the demesne of a hand-picked choir, but the English Reformation invited the voices of the entire congregation. This printing of the Psalms in verse, set to meter, allowed them to be sung by all. Thus the Bay Psalm Book is a kind of hymnal.

Denominations still print original hymnals today, and every new printing marks time and documents tastes. Earlier this year, I interviewed a church organist who was retiring after more than sixty years of service. She did not measure those years in calendrical or liturgical terms, in Christmases, Easters, or even pastors, but hymnals. “I’ve played five different hymnals,” she told me. After she said it, I calculated that my entire life was only three hymnals.

How the Printing Press Changed the World

Contrary to popular belief, Guttenberg did not invent printing he invented the printing press. Printing itself began in China with wood-carved reliefs of each character that could be pressed onto a medium like silk. The Chinese also invented moveable type, too. However, early forms of printing were still expensive and time-consuming. Guttenberg’s printing press solved both of those problems. Even though it could take a full day to set one type tray, his metal letter molds and oil-based ink made presses more durable and faster, thus making books cheaper and more available to the public. Guttenberg’s printing press changed the world, and from 1430 on, we haven’t looked back.

Hand-scribing books meant limited books…and limited literacy

Before the printing press, books in Europe were hand-scribed, and thus with books difficult to come by and very expensive, few other than the elite could read. Granted, these books often contained beautiful calligraphy and artwork, and illuminated manuscripts were real works of art. The mass-produced books weren’t so beautiful, but they made information more accessible to a middle class that was becoming increasingly literate. The cheaper books were, the more literate the masses became.

Mass-production meant more freedom to disseminate information.

With books being more widely available to the public and cheap to buy and produce, more books, and thus, more ideas, could be shared. Before the printing press, the most commonly scribed book was the bible and the church had among her ranks most of the scribes scientific and philosophical ideas couldn’t be so widely shared with the world. The Gutenberg press took the monopoly of publishing from the church and put the power into the hands of whoever could pay to run the printing press. Not only could more books be printed, but also pamphlets and other documents. Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, for example, used broadsheets akin to today’s newspapers.

Newspapers inform us all

Even if it took one person a long time to set a type page, once it was set, it could keep printing pages repeatedly. Having a group of people setting type pages for a group of presses meant that multiple pages could be created and printed that day, giving rise to printed news. Newspapers arose in the 17 th century and became more widespread in Europe and the United States in the 18 th century. They’re essentially still the same as they’ve been for centuries. Whereas news could be largely shared by mouth through conversation, public decree, or other announcements, printed news could share the same facts and the same information with everyone who could read, reaching a larger audience more quickly. With the invention of the telegraph and then the telephone, regional, national, and world news could be disseminated daily, sometimes more ofte.

Books could be mass-produced for information and instruction.

Cookbooks, history books, and a variety of fiction and non-books became possible with the printing press. Ideas that were novel or even controversial, such as scientific theories, philosophies, or political ideas could reach a wide audience through use of the printing press. Anyone who could read a book could expand their horizons and teach themselves any subject they had the interest or stomach to learn. Without books, a country boy born in a one-room log cabin in rural Kentucky could learn math, language, history, and law despite having no one around him to teach him. This country boy in particular was Abraham Lincoln, sixteenth president of the United States.

Knowledge became egalitarian.

For those who could read, could access books and newspapers, and had the curiosity and time to read could know just as much about a subject as someone who had a formal education if they read and retained enough. Books were still cheaper than tutors or private education, and in some places, books were much more readily available than a comprehensive formal education.

Those who could write and entice someone to publish the works for them or could afford to have their books published did so. This meant that visionaries didn’t have to rely on the approval of the establishment to get their works out there. For example, Walt Whitman, the father of modern poetry, was heavily involved in the printing and publishing of his book, Leaves of Grass. Thomas Paine’s self-printed Common Sense pamphlet advocated for the 13 American colonies to seek independence from Great Britain and was read widely in meeting places…and taverns.

The birth of the novel.

While the art of storytelling is something that we have always had with us, and classics and epics like the Iliad were hand-scribed on scrolls, the modern novel couldn’t have really existed without the printing press. In order to create a work of fiction to entertain a wide variety of people, the writer would need access to cheap, uniform printing methods. The easier it was to publish books, the more possibilities there were for writers to create and share works of fiction with others.

One press = uniformity in language.

Hand-scribed books were often full of errors or variations in spelling and grammar. However, with the printing press, spelling became uniform. In fact, the need to save space on a type page meant fewer extraneous letters and punctuation. Sharing information with a variety of people meant that they all had to understand what was being written and shared. Thus, over time, spelling and grammar became standardized. Lettering, too, became more simple and easy to read. Now, every written language also has a consensus of how words should be spelled and sentences written.

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