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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Sunday, March 07, 2010

Sleeping on Linen Rags

At last night’s Boston Massacre reenactment I got to see a number of familiar faces, and a couple of new ones: the gents from TeachHistory and RagLinen. The latter had, in fact, come all the way from Chicago to witness the event.

This brief posting, therefore, is in honor of rag linen, which printers collected to give to their paper-makers so they could eventually have more paper to print on. Particularly during the war, when imports from Britain were scant, newspapers contained a lot of advertisements asking homemakers to bring in scraps of linen for recycling.

The printer Joseph T. Buckingham collected this anecdote from an older printer, Benjamin Russell (1761-1845, shown here), who had been a teen-aged apprentice to Isaiah Thomas around 1776. Feeling threatened by the army, Thomas had left Boston in a hurry just before the war broke out. He had a tough time establishing himself in central Massachusetts. Buckingham wrote:

Mr. Thomas was not, at that time, in very affluent circumstances. During the first year or two of his apprenticeship, Russell, with a fellow-apprentice, slept in a garret, over the printing-office, on the rags that were taken in from time to time for the paper-maker.

Not only his apprentices, but the master himself, frequently made their meals in the office on bread, and “milk bought by the penny-worth at a time.”
Eventually Thomas was able to put his Massachusetts Spy newspaper on firm footing in Worcester, and became one of America’s pioneering printers of children’s books (mostly pirated from Britain). He founded the American Antiquarian Society.

Benjamin Russell also became a prosperous printer, publishing the Columbian Centinel, Boston’s leading Federalist newspaper, and Boston Gazette. Over the course of his career, printers moved from being ink-stained members of the working class to influential shapers of opinion, and Russell ended up in the state senate and on the governor’s council.


Karen said...

What a fabulous post.Since son and his wife moved to Boston I am a Boston fanatic,the history,the architectual.....the everthing......I am sure I will some very useful info here!....thanks....Karen

Rag Linen said...

Thanks for the plug and mini-tribute post to historic newspapers, John. I greatly enjoyed meeting you, Ben, Gary and the host of others involved in the terrific reenactment. I also had a great time capturing the juxtaposition of colonial reenactors using iPhones and drinking large diet Cokes from McDonald's. Check out the two photos at http://raglinen.com.

J. L. Bell said...

Glad you got home okay! Some reenactors dislike seeing those sorts of “backstage” photos in newspaper reports on a reenactment. But I can see the images’ value from a photojournalist’s point of view. The combination of items from different periods summarizes the story: “people from this time dressed up and behaved like people of a distant time.”