Isaiah Thomas’s Printing Press

This wooden common press was constructed in 1747 in London, England. It is the press that AAS founder Isaiah Thomas (1749-1831) learned to use as a child while apprenticed to Boston printer Zachariah Fowle (1724-1776). When Thomas eventually took over Fowle’s printing business, he also became the owner of this press.

On this press Thomas printed his newspaper, The Massachusetts Spy, which roused Americans throughout the Colonies to rebel against British authority and inspired them to seek independence. His printing shop was labeled a “sedition foundry” and he was frequently in trouble with the Royal government of Massachusetts. Members of the Sons of Liberty also sometimes met in his shop.

Fearing this press would be impounded, Thomas’s friends, including John Hancock (1737-1793), Joseph Warren (1741-1775), and local Worcester patriot and blacksmith Timothy Bigelow (1739-1790), urged him to remove it from Boston for safe keeping inland. On the evening of April 16, 1775, Thomas packed up this press and, in his own words, “stole it out of Boston.” He rowed it across the Charles River, put it on a cart, and sent it to Worcester where was soon after reassembled in the basement of Timothy Bigelow’s house. Three days later, on April 19, 1775, the Battles of Lexington and Concord started the American Revolution.

Thomas was unable to bring any paper when he left Boston, and so John Hancock wrote a letter of request to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress for paper to be delivered to Thomas in Worcester. (Read more about this in the blog post John Hancock performs his patriotic duty by…acquiring paper?) When the paper arrived, Thomas printed the May 3, 1775 issue of The Massachusetts Spy where on page three he printed his eyewitness account of the Battles of Lexington and Concord. On a copy of that issue, Thomas himself wrote, “This is the first thing ever printed in Worcester."

Thomas gave the press the nickname “Old Number One” and kept it with him his entire life.

Additional Resources

Pressing Matters: An Experiential Study of the Isaiah Thomas Printing Press at the American Antiquarian Society by Jeffrey D. Groves, Common-place 13:1, October 2012.

In this educational video, James David Moran, former AAS Vice President for Programs and Outreach, describes this printing press and its role in the American Revolution.

Primary sources, listed in order of appearance
The following primary sources were discussed in this video.

Timestamp Thumbnail Access Title Item details
0:36 Detail of The lawer's pedigree The lawer's [sic] pedigree (detail) AAS catalog record
0:44 The lawer's pedigree The lawer's [sic] pedigree. AAS catalog record
1:13 Massachusetts spy The Massachusetts spy, or, American oracle of liberty AAS catalog record
1:44 A plan of the town and harbour of Boston. A plan of the town and harbour of Boston. AAS catalog record
2:01 Plan of Worcester Plan of Worcester AAS catalog record
2:26 The Battle of Lexington. The Battle of Lexington. AAS catalog record
2:31 Battle of Lexington. Battle of Lexington. AAS catalog record
2:36 Battle of Lexington. Battle of Lexington. AAS catalog record
2:50 John Hancock letter, April 26, 1775 John Hancock letter, April 26, 1775 AAS catalog record

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