The First Publication in the Future United States

The Vault
Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
Nov. 19 2012 9:30 AM

This Is the First Book the Puritans Published on Our Shores

In a hidden corner of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, inside a box with a false title (to ward off thieves), lies a book of legendary rarity.  A recent appraiser from Sotheby’s pegged its value at $10 million. 

After penetrating its defenses, the book itself is surprisingly ordinary to look at.  A worn out calf binding, soft to the touch, greets the interloper, and then, inside the cover, a set of casual doodles and signatures, in an old 17th-century hand. How can this very used book be so valuable? 

Perhaps because it is the first book published in what would become the United States. The so-called Bay Psalm Book was a project of extraordinary ambition, undertaken by the Puritans of Massachusetts not long after they crossed the Atlantic and began to live around Boston.  At Cambridge, a printing press, brought over from England, began to issue The Word: first a freeman’s oath, then an almanac, and then the great project of a book of psalms. This would be useful in church—the Puritans, surprisingly, loved to sing—and it would show a doubting Europe that they were people of culture, ready to take on the world.   

The book is crude in ways—lines do not always align perfectly—but when you consider what they were up against, thousands of miles from London, it’s a remarkable achievement. There are decorative elements here and there, and bits of Hebrew type dropped into the text (were they showing off?). But if it speaks a bit proudly, it also warns against the sin of pride. The reason that this copy is so valuable is that it is the simplest. Only 11 copies are known to exist, and this one is considered the most perfect, still in its original binding. 

Page of the Bay Psalm Book

The John Carter Brown Library at Brown University. See a full scan of this copy of the Bay Psalm Book at the World Digital Library.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Irritating Confidante

John Dickerson on Ben Bradlee’s fascinating relationship with John F. Kennedy.

My Father Invented Social Networking at a Girls’ Reform School in the 1930s

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

The All The President’s Men Scene That Captured Ben Bradlee

Medical Examiner

Is It Better to Be a Hero Like Batman?

Or an altruist like Bruce Wayne?

Technology

Driving in Circles

The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.

The World’s Human Rights Violators Are Signatories to the World’s Human Rights Treaties

How Punctual Are Germans?

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 22 2014 12:44 AM We Need More Ben Bradlees His relationship with John F. Kennedy shows what’s missing from today’s Washington journalism.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 21 2014 5:57 PM Soda and Fries Have Lost Their Charm for Both Consumers and Investors
  Life
The Vault
Oct. 21 2014 2:23 PM A Data-Packed Map of American Immigration in 1903
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 3:03 PM Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real
  Slate Plus
Working
Oct. 22 2014 6:00 AM Why It’s OK to Ask People What They Do David Plotz talks to two junior staffers about the lessons of Working.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 9:42 PM The All The President’s Men Scene That Perfectly Captured Ben Bradlee’s Genius
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 22 2014 8:13 AM Good Teaching Is Not About Playing It Safe Classroom technology can make learning more dangerous, and that’s a good thing.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 22 2014 7:30 AM An Illusion That Makes Me Happy and Sad
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.