Women in the Book Trade

While we normally think that women were not allowed to participate in skilled crafts in early America, the book trades appear to have been an exception.  In colonial and revolutionary Maryland, both Anna Catherine Green of Annapolis and Mary Katherine Goddard of Baltimore were printers who oversaw the complicated processes associated with the production and distribution of printed information in the form of books, newspapers, political broadsides, pamphlets, almanacs, and various types of printed ephemera such as forms, tickets, and advertisements.  After 1800, fewer women operated as independent printers, which was an indication of changing social norms for the role of women and a changing economy that concentrated power in the hands of a few publishers.  However, women continued to participate in some aspects of the book trades, specifically type founding and book binding.  The casting, sorting and packaging of tiny pieces of lead type for printing required patience, a steady hand, and attention to detail.  Similarly, sewing the gatherings of leaves that formed books, required great manual dexterity.  Many woman had the basic eye-hand coordination required in these trades, because sewing, embroidering and other needle skills were expected activities for young females.

A recent gift to the Rare Books Collection in the University of Maryland Libraries is confirmation of women’s continued participation in the book trades.  Published in Philadelphia in 1837, the Panorama of Professions is essentially a textbook that introduced school children to the common trades of Jacksonian America.   Readers got a brief description of each trade, including an engraved illustration.  Teachers using this text also could assign students to answer the test questions for each section, located in the back of the book.  The images for the type founders and bookbinders show men and women at different aspects of the work.  Men are doing the more dangerous work of pouring hot lead to cast the individual pieces of type, while women are assigned the post-production processing activities.  Men associated with bookbinding are shown rounding the text block, attaching the boards, and preparing the leather covers; while woman are sitting at the sewing frames assembling the loose sheets into actual books.

Since primary education in America mostly was coeducational even in the early 19th century, one can assume that these images were meant to show that a young girl could aspire to a profession.  By including women as paid employees in a type foundry or bookbindery, the author and publisher of the Panorama of Professions preserved evidence that women had some opportunities as independent economic actors.  Both trades likely were considered preferable to service jobs or working in the dangerous textile mills that were at the vanguard of the Industrial Revolution.  This revolution eventually spelled the end of manual crafts such as bookbinding and type founding, and with it, the opportunities those professions had for women.


Doug McElrath is the acting head of Special Collections and University Archives at the University of Maryland. He has had a long term interest in the history of the book in Maryland.

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