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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Friday, May 29, 2009

Sarah Russell: “a very industrious, active woman”

[This posting has been updated to reflect newer research on Ezekiel Russell’s wife.]

Yesterday I discussed how, contrary to later reports, Penelope Russell didn’t succeed her husband Ezekiel as publisher of The Censor since he outlived that magazine by almost a quarter-century. But Ezekiel’s wife, who was really named Sarah, definitely helped him to print that magazine, as recalled by a fellow Boston printer, Isaiah Thomas.

In his History of Printing in America, Thomas wrote:

Ezekiel Russell was born in Boston, and served an apprenticeship with his brother, Joseph Russell, the partner of John Green [in printing the Boston Post-Boy]. In 1765, he began printing with Thomas Furber, at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, under the firm of Furber & Russell. Not succeeding in business, they dissolved their partnership, and Russell returned to Boston.

He worked with various printers until 1769, when he procured a press and a few types. With these he printed on his own account, in a house near Concert Hall. He afterward removed to Union street, where to the business of printing he added that of an auctioneer, which he soon quitted, and adhered to printing. Excepting an edition of Watts’s Psalms, he published nothing of more consequence than pamphlets, most of which were small.

In November, 1771, he began a political publication entitled The Censor. This paper was supported, during the short period of its existence, by those who were in the interest of the British government.
Friends of the royal government sponsored the Censor in an attempt to counteract all the Whig essays appearing in Boston’s biggest newspapers. In other words, it was the voice of Loyalism. This fact never seems to arise in items describing Sarah Russell as an early American female printer.

That said, the Russells don’t seem to have been committed Loyalists. They apparently took the Censor job because they needed the money. Ezekiel’s brother Joseph went to Canada with the British military in 1776, but Ezekiel and Sarah stayed in Massachusetts. Thomas tried to trace all the places that the Russells set up shop, but I’m not sure he timed their moves exactly:
Russell afterward removed to Salem, and attempted the publication of a newspaper, but did not succeed. He again removed, and went to Danvers, and printed in a house known by the name of the Bell tavern. In a few years he returned once more to Boston; and, finally, took his stand in Essex street, near the spot on which grew the great elms, one of which was then standing, and was called Liberty tree. Here he printed and sold ballads, and published whole and half sheet pamphlets for peddlers. In these small articles his trade principally consisted, and afforded him a very decent support.
Among the items Russell issued was Phillis Wheatley’s elegy on the Rev. George Whitefield. In 1773 he printed four enslaved men’s petition for an end to slavery, again probably for the money rather than a sign of his political commitment. Late that year he printed a pamphlet against the tea protests, which was condemned by a Boston town meeting and may well have led to his decision to relocate to Salem in early 1774. In the summer of 1776 Russell was still in Salem, and got the contract to print copies of the Declaration of Independence for every town in the new state.

Russell probably moved back to Boston and settled on Essex Street only after Liberty Tree was cut down. He didn’t advertise or label any publications as being printed near the tree when it was famous, but in the 1790s used such identifications as “Printed by E. Russell, next Liberty-Stump.”

And as for Sarah, here’s what Isaiah Thomas wrote in 1810:
The wife of Russell was indeed an “help meet for him.” She was a very industrious, active woman; she made herself acquainted with the printing business; and, not only assisted her husband in the printing house, but she sometimes invoked her muse, and wrote ballads on recent tragical events, which being immediately printed, and set off with wooden cuts of coffins, &c., had frequently “a considerable run.”
The 1874 edition of Thomas’s book is different. That edition credited the ballads to “A young woman who lived in Russell’s family.”

The broadside I discussed back here and show above was one of that shop’s coffin-decorated poetic creations. It was “Printed and Sold next to the Writing-School, on Queen Street,” the same address Russell used in newspaper ads in late 1769 and 1770.

Ezekiel Russell died in September 1796 “after a lingering illness” at the age of fifty-three. Thomas reported that Penelope Russell “continued the business.” But he didn’t give her a separate biographical entry in his book, and he didn’t record when she died.

ADDENDUM: New documentation on Penelope Russell’s business transactions.

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