J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Penelope Russell and The Censor

Penelope Russell of Boston is listed in many books and websites as one of the first female printers in the U.S. of A. All these citations seem to funnel back to the first volume of The History of Woman Suffrage (1881), which included this statement:

Penelope Russell printed The Censor in Boston, Mass., in 1771. She set her own type, and was such a ready compositor as to set up her editorials without written copy, while working at her case. The most tragical and interesting events were thus recorded by her.
Matilda Joslyn Gage (shown here, courtesy of the National Park Service) wrote that volume’s chapter on female printers, though she later complained that her coauthors, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, rewrote all her material and pushed her out of the creation of the following volumes.

Gage went on to publish her more radical feminist ideas in Woman, Church, and State (1893), but her biggest contribution to American letters was encouraging her son-in-law L. Frank Baum to write down those fairy stories he was telling the children.

Gage’s remark about Penelope Russell has no citation, but with Google’s help I traced it back through early feminist pamphlets and general-interest magazines to what may be the ur-source: an article by Josiah Snow of Rochester titled “Early Printers, Male and Female”, dated 11 Jan 1847 and published in a History of the Press of Western New-York:
Penelope Russell succeeded her husband in printing the “Censor,” at Boston, in 1771. She was a very industrious and active woman. She not only set type, but while at her case, invoked her muse and put up type on tragical events, in an interesting manner, without any written copy.
Obviously Snow was passing on professional lore; he wouldn’t have seen Russell at work seventy-five years earlier. And some details got mangled along the way.

[ADDENDUM: Perhaps the most important detail is that the wife of Ezekiel Russell, who helped him in his print shop and kept it running after his death, was actually named Sarah Russell.]

The Censor was indeed printed in Boston from 23 Nov 1771 to 2 May 1772. However, at the time Penelope Sarah Russell’s husband Ezekiel was very much alive, and listed on the magazine’s masthead as its publisher. He was, indeed, still in his late twenties. Only after Ezekiel died in September 1796 did Penelope Sarah Russell succeed him as head of the print shop.

TOMORROW: Isaiah Thomas on Ezekiel and Sarah Russell—and he actually knew them.

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