Saturday, April 29, 2023

The First Lady Printer, Who Also Taught Ben Franklin to Set Type


Last month I wrote about the growth of magazine popularity in America from the time of our early colonial history. We learned that Andrew Bradford beat Benjamin Franklin in the race to produce the first such publication. We all know how Franklin developed his illustrious printing career that pinnacled when he became the official printer of Pennsylvania and New Jersey and published his famed Poor Richard's Almanack. However, did you know that it was Ben's sister-in-law who became the first female printer in America? In fact, she owned the press on which Benjamin first learned to set type, and she also held the contract as the official printer for the state of Rhode Island.

Ann Smith was born and educated in Boston. At the age of twenty-six, she married James Franklin, Benjamin's elder brother to whom he had been apprenticed and indentured to, until he ran away under a loophole in their contract. James was a newspaper printer who tended to stir up trouble by aggravating church leaders and government authorities. He was ordered to stop printing his newspaper The Courant, so he and Ann accepted his other brother John's invitation to Newport Rhode Island where John made his living as a candle chandler. There, John and Ann started a new newspaper, the Rhode Island Gazette. 

Ann gave birth to five children during their marriage, of which two daughters and a son survived to adulthood. Even while she ran her household and reared her children, she often helped John in the printshop where she set type and operated the press. They also owned a small shop that sold papers, books, and printed materials which Ann frequently oversaw. 

Then the unthinkable happened when John passed away after a long illness in 1735, leaving Ann a widow with (then) four children to support. She continued on with the print shop, but she wasn't bringing in the work needed to meet her family's needs. 

Ever resourceful, Ann applied to the colony of Rhode Island to become it's official printer of the General Assembly, a job which would guarantee her work and income. She pleaded her case of being a widow trying to make ends meet. She got the job! Over the years that followed, Ann printed all the colonies laws, election ballots, legal forms, and even the colony's currency. She also continued taking in extra work on the side.

Ann also revived the almanac her own husband had started in 1727, renaming it The Rhode Island Almanac, making her the first woman to print an almanac (something similar to our modern times Old Farmers' Almanac).

Ann's children were also very involved in the work of the print shop. Later on, her eldest son James went to Philadelphia to apprentice under his uncle Benjamin, while his sisters continued to help Ann set type in the print shop. Then James returned to Newport to partner with his mother. They opened their business as "Ann and James Franklin". In 1758, they published the Newport Mercury, Rhode Island's first newspaper which is still in production today. 

First issue of the Newport Mercury

Sadly, Ann's two daughters passed into eternity before her, but in 1763 Ann followed. But Ann left a legacy as old as the United States itself. More than two hundred years later, she became the first woman inducted into the Journalism Hall of Fame at the University of Rhode Island.

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In my last two posts, I shared opening lines from my Echoes of the Heart series-- The Deepest Sigh (Book One) and The Softest Breath (Book Two). In Book Three, which concludes the series, readers meet my own lady printer, Holly Allen, a widow since WWI. She's hiring help with his own dark past. Can Hugh Phelps ever be redeemed? Here are the opening lines from The Brightest Hope.

Learn More, Buy now, or Grab it Free on Kindle Unlimited


1 comment:

  1. Thank you for posting today. I loved hearing about Ann and the way she persevered under stress and hardship. It's awesome that she was recognized by the Journalism Hall of Fame.