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, April 11, 2014

The Art of Peter Fleet

Finally I’m getting back to the family of enslaved printers in pre-Revolutionary Boston, Peter Fleet and his sons Pompey and Caesar.

In his history of printing, Isaiah Thomas mentioned the last two by name, so when scholars spotted the initials “P.F” at the bottom of the woodcut shown here, they guessed it had been carved by Pompey Fleet.

In fact, Thomas had written that Pompey’s father had carved woodcuts for Thomas Fleet, Sr. Once people remembered the 1743 will of a slave named Peter owned by the Fleet family, they realized that “P.F” could also stand for Peter Fleet.

I’m inclined to credit this cut to Peter, the father. According to E. Jennifer Monaghan’s Learning to Read and Write in Colonial America, Thomas Fleet first advertised this book, The Prodigal Daughter, in his Boston Evening-Post in 1736. We don’t have any definite examples of that edition because the several copies that survive don’t include printing dates. Some copies are estimated as early as 1742. So either Peter Fleet carved that woodcut or the estimated dates are way off because Pompey Fleet wasn’t old enough to do such work until the late 1750s. And Isaiah Thomas never said Pompey made woodcuts.

The Prodigal Daughter is a narrative poem describing how a wicked daughter plotted to poison her wealthy parents in Bristol, England. Luckily, those parents were saved by angels casting the girl into a coma. She lay apparently dead for a few days and then returned to repent and share a vision of the afterlife.

Naturally, the descendants of Boston’s Puritan founders thought that this story, when decorated with several woodcut illustrations of devils and near-dead people, was a wonderful gift for children. Indeed, the earliest copy in Readex’s Archive of Americana database was given to Richard Knowles by his mother.

Thomas Fleet’s sons inherited his business in 1758 and kept printing The Prodigal Daughter with the same illustrations. After the republican Revolution they changed their business sign from “the Heart and Crown” to “the Bible and Heart,” and they kept printing this book.

Isaiah Thomas issued his own edition of The Prodigal Daughter in 1772. Ezekiel Russell issued his in 1790, 1791, and 1797. Both those printers commissioned new illustrations, but the results bear a strong resemblance to those in the Fleet edition. I think Peter Fleet’s style is notable for its heavy vertical hatching.

Nathaniel Coverly, Jr., published The Prodigal Daughter in Boston in the 1810s, using the old Fleet woodcuts—but with the “P.F” scraped off. By then Peter Fleet had probably been dead for more than fifty years. This webpage from Princeton shows three different variations of the book (crediting the art to Pompey Fleet).

The Massachusetts Historical Society exhibits another image from the Fleet print shop probably carved by Peter Fleet. That woodcut originally headed a broadside titled “New England Bravery,” celebrating the conquest of Louisburg in 1745. Thirty-odd years later the (white) Fleet brothers used the same woodcut of a city on a broadside titled “Two Favorite Songs Made on the Evacuation of Boston.” Thus, generations of Bostonians saw the art of Peter Fleet.

TOMORROW: The (black) Fleet brothers go separate ways.

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