Isaiah Thomas Broadside Ballads Project

Verses in Vogue with the Vulgar

Coverly Network


Print SellerImage from A Visit to the Bazaar (1819).

Of the 306 broadsides in the Thomas collection, almost half are clearly marked as having been printed by Nathaniel Coverly Jr. Two pieces printed in his Milk Street shop, Tom Starboard and The Sailor’s Journal, proudly bear the date of “October, 1810,” perhaps the first items Coverly produced in his new location, which he and his wife Eunice had moved into only a few months earlier. Coverly seemed particularly careful to put his name on most of his publications and often added his full address, “Milk Street, corner of Theatre Alley, Boston.” At least 8 broadsides in the Thomas collection were likely printed by someone other than Coverly, including the 7 printed by Evans (The Sailor's Departure from His True Love Susan, The Lovely Apparition, A Sequel to the Disconsolate Sailor, Bonney Bet of Aberdeen, The Plough Boy, The Rose Tree, Wives & Sweethearts) and the program from the Washington Benevolent Society meeting on April 30, 1814. Two questions arise: Did Thomas buy the Coverly broadsides from Coverly himself? And who printed the rest of the pieces?

The first question can be answered with a tentative “yes.” In June 1814, Thomas paid $4.50 for 333 sheets, or $.0135 per sheet. That works out to a little less than half the retail price of three cents, and would be a fair price for someone buying in bulk.[1] Thomas recorded the purchase in his journal and when he had the sheets bound, he wrote on the flyleaf of the first volume that he purchased the broadsides “from a Ballad Printer and Seller in Boston.”

The second question is harder to answer, but there is a hint in Thomas’s note—Coverly was not only a printer, but also a seller of broadsides. Librarians such as AAS Curator of Children’s Literature Laura Wasowicz at AAS and catalogers at Brown University, who attribute items to Coverly based on use of cuts and general typesetting, indicate there is a recognizable look to Coverly pieces—even those without imprints. I would agree. Many of the cuts are related to one another and the type is chiefly Caslon. Until 1815, when Coverly had probably made enough money to invest in better type, finer cuts, and higher quality paper, his broadsides were printed on varying sizes and types of paper and the printing was uneven. So the best way to address the question is to look at all the broadsides in the collection and search for clues.

Some hints can be found in the broadsides without imprints. There are fifty-four such broadsides that use relief cuts from known Coverly broadsides or imprints, suggesting that Coverly printed these broadsides as well but for some reason did not include an imprint. Several are proofs that were later printed with his imprint or are printed on the back of other Coverly pieces. Another sixty-one broadsides have decorative borders that are found on broadsides with his illustrations, bringing Coverly’s share of the collection to about two-thirds of the sheets. There is a large group that do not fit into this mold and seem to have been printed outside of the Milk Street shop. Both Coverly and his father worked within a small network of compatriots in the printing world, not only with Isaiah Thomas early on, but later with John Norman, Joseph White, and Charles Cambridge. It is within this network that clues to the origins of the remaining broadsides may be found.

Isaiah Thomas

Isaiah Thomas and Nathaniel Coverly Sr. began in the printing business at the same time, both working with Zechariah Fowle and both learning to create relief illustrations in Fowle’s shop. As they started businesses of their own, they issued editions of the same pamphlet literature, almanacs, and children’s books, as did other printers of the time. In the 1780s, Coverly and Thomas both had shops on Newbury Street in Boston. Thomas took subscriptions in Worcester for several of Coverly’s publications and did other business with him. But Thomas may have felt a growing social and economic difference between himself and Coverly.

By 1812, Thomas was a member of the middle class—a workingman of very humble origins who through skill, hard work, and a bit of luck had made good. The Coverlys were members of the same class from somewhat prouder origins, but they had failed, mostly through bad luck, and certainly not for lack of trying. When Thomas founded AAS, he wanted his collection to reflect all aspects of early American culture. To that end he made a specific attempt to gather pamphlets and broadsides for his new library. But that he had to make a special effort suggests he had not paid much attention to these items during his career and did not particularly respect them as much more than trivial amusement for the “vulgar” sort, as he put it. He commented that the broadsides he purchased were not even printed as well as “70 years ago, in Boston.”

Thomas was particularly interested in recording the history of newspapers in America. Coverly and his son had published four newspapers in four different towns, each lasting at least a year.[2] For lack of sufficient subscriptions and for nonpayments, each had failed. Thomas too was solicited to set up newspapers, in Newburyport in 1773 and in Worcester in 1774. These also failed for the same reasons. But Coverly’s efforts in this regard were not mentioned in Thomas’s History of Printing in America (1810) even though unsuccessful papers published by equally peripatetic Ezekiel Russell were described. It may or may not be a coincidence that none of the Coverly newspapers are among the titles given to AAS by Thomas. And Thomas was not among the subscribers to the Gentleman and Ladies Magazine created by Coverly in 1789.

In 1805, a group of about a dozen printers in Boston formed a society to regulate their trade and particularly to regulate prices and to agree on general rules in respect to apprentices and journeymen (Buckingham, “Faustus Association”; Russell; Buckingham, “History of the Faustus Association”). Thomas joined several years after its formation. The businessmen also established a fire protection group for mutual assistance in case of fire. Regular meetings were held and fines levied for nonattendance. In 1805, neither of the Coverlys was in a position to join such a group. It passed out of existence in 1815, just about the time Coverly Jr. was becoming stable in his business.

In 1802 Isaiah Thomas participated in the bankruptcy action against Coverly Jr. Included in Coverly’s debts was a note for $50 due to the company of Thomas and Andrews. While this may have been a phantom note written to help the son of an old family friend in trouble, at that point Thomas considered the Coverlys irrelevant in the history of printing. Thomas did not include either man in his History of Printing in America—effectively condemning them to obscurity for nearly two hundred years. As noted above, when Thomas inscribed the bound volumes of broadsides he most likely purchased from Coverly Jr., instead of naming Coverly as the printer he simply recorded that he had bought them from a “Ballad Printer and Seller in Boston.”

John Norman

Engraver and printer John Norman (1744?-1817) came to Philadelphia from England in 1774 and moved to Boston in 1781. His skill at copying a design can be seen in his copy of the frontispiece of The Compleat Tutor for the Fife.[3] He found a ready market for his engraving skills, preparing copper plates for Coverly Sr.’s Impartial History of the War in America (1781-84), Weatherwise’s Town and Country Almanack (1782), and music plates for his own publications, The Massachusetts Harmony (1784) and William Billings’s Suffolk Harmony (1786). He set up shop on Marshall’s Lane, between Market Square and the Mill Pond, and was joined by Joseph White. Norman’s firm also printed The British Grammar (1784) for Coverly, suggesting a close professional relationship. He printed Tom Thumb’s Folio (1794) using the same crude woodcuts that Coverly had used for The History of Little Goody Two Shoes (1783) and continued to use in other books.

Joseph White

Joseph White was born around 1755.[4] He may have been the son of Josiah and Sarah Holbrook White of Weymouth in Norfolk County, Massachusetts. Joseph was about twenty years old when the first shots of the Revolutionary War were heard in Lexington and Concord, and he enlisted in the army in May 1775 in Boston. He joined an artillery unit as a bombardier and was in Pennsylvania in December 1776, crossing the Delaware with Washington’s army and participating in the Battles of Trenton and Princeton in General Knox’s regiment. In an affidavit for pension in 1819 he commented that he believed he was the sole survivor of his unit at the Battle of Princeton. Shortly before his death in 1836 he published a small book detailing his wartime experience.[5] 

It is in the pension application of May 1819 that a glimpse of his personal life is gained, a poor existence very much like that of Nathaniel Coverly Sr.’s. By then he was sixty-three years old, capable only of being a messenger and running errands, even though he clung to his “old printing press,” his livelihood for many years. His wife was fifty-six and he depended on his pension of ninety-eight dollars per year for their support. He had no real estate and his personal estate, “his necessary clothing and bedding excepted” was outlined in the application for pension extension.

An old printing press 200

100 cwt old types 30

Books & ballads 5

tongs 3

black bureau 11                                                           

Looking glass 3 

4 piece tables & chairs 36

Shovel & tongs & andirons 8

old watch 4                                                               

spoons 8

Cooking utensils 4

lamps 7

[cutting press?] 5

Crockery ware                                                            

The total value was $150. He had debts of $18.00 and money due him of $11.50.

White’s poverty is described in the Boston tax records from 1790 through 1810. Listed as a printer or bookbinder, White’s taxes were at the minimum level and often abated because he was “very poor.” From April 1794 until May 1802 it was also noted that he had a “crazey wife.” In 1799 a note suggests that three children were also part of their household.[6] By 1803 his economic situation had improved somewhat and he paid his taxes. By 1809 he had $100 in personal estate and in 1810 he had $200. His landlord on Prince Street was William Bordman.

A woman named Eunice White, “wife of Joseph White,” died in Boston on August 11, 1807, aged twenty-eight. This seems young to have been the fifty-two-year-old “crazey wife” but the age might have been misquoted by the Columbian Centinel on August 12, 1807. White remarried on October 7, 1813, in Charlestown, to Mary Barrington. A certificate of their marriage is now included in his service jacket, evidently supplied by Mary when she applied in 1853 for continuation of her widow’s pension.

It was in Boston in 1788 that Joseph White began the printing business with his partner Charles Cambridge. Between 1788 and 1792 the two issued twenty-one imprints; White published one on his own, The History of a Little Boy Found Under a Haycock (1790).

Cambridge pulled out of the business in 1792 and in 1796 went with the Coverlys to Amherst, New Hampshire. It took White a year to get back on track and from 1794 to 1802 he managed to get out enough titles to keep the shop going. Many of White’s titles are like those of Coverly Sr.’s output: ten almanacs, several editions of The New England Primer, and four editions of the Robinson Crusoe story. He was interested in song lyrics and printed three collections of songs (1795, 1797, and 1800). He printed two topical broadsides with lyrics: Hail Columbia (1798) and Adams and Liberty (1798), the only signed broadsides from his shop. Some of these publications had relief cuts that would reappear in Coverly Jr.’s shop.

After 1800, White’s signed output thinned to almost nothing, his ability to work perhaps overwhelmed by his first wife’s deteriorating condition and family cares. One small pamphlet appeared in 1801, three in 1802, and one in 1803. He still maintained his shop and printed a promotional advertisement on the back page of a tragically relevant pamphlet called Letters on Courtship and Marriage (1802).

The tiny Mother Goose’s Melody; or, Sonnets for the Cradle (1804) appeared without an imprint but was unmistakably from White’s press. It was simply marked “printed in the year 1804.” Significantly, the woodcuts are common to his other work, and also to future work from Coverly Jr.’s press. According to Boston tax records, during 1805 and 1806 White shared his dwelling place with a peddler named Simeon Dean, who might have helped him sell his wares.

White’s obituary appeared in the Boston Daily Evening Transcript on March 15, 1836.  “Mr. Joseph White, 81, died in Charlestown. He was a revolutionary pensioner and formerly a printer in this City.” White’s career had paralleled Coverly Jr.’s in many ways. White was producing ephemeral pamphlets from 1794 to 1802 and his press went silent until 1810. Coverly produced the same kind of literature in a number of locations from 1795 to 1802 and then was stopped by bankruptcy. Both White and Coverly were listed in extant Boston directories as printers during the 1803-10 period. After eight years of silence, Coverly opened a shop in downtown Boston and White moved across the river. Yet echoes of White’s inventory are present in Coverly’s stock, suggesting an active partnership during the 1803-10 period and perhaps well into the next decade.

The Joseph White Connection

Joseph White produced two editions of a humorous satirical pamphlet entitled The Rich Gentleman Who Swallowed a Cobler (1814). One edition was his, imprinted in Charlestown, Massachusetts. The imprint on the other was “Boston: Printed for N. Coverly Jun.” On the cover was a large cut that White had used on two earlier signed pieces, Touch Upon the Times (1797) and History of Jane Shore (1801). On the last page was another cut he had used on several of the broadsides that Isaiah Thomas purchased from Coverly in 1814. Throughout the Thomas collection there are other hints that Coverly was selling items that had been printed in White’s shop.

These are all set in a type with the long s and, compared to other printers’ work, all have subtle but distinctive spacing between letters and words.[7] Occasionally the typesetter does not seem to be aware of a classic printer’s caveat, the creation of “rivers” of white space formed by poor word spacing from line to line.[8] In addition, there is a group of very unusual woodcuts associated with some of these broadsides, and often a charming type ornament that White used over and over again in his signed pieces.[9]

Looking at the Coverly and White careers and focusing on the period between 1803 and 1809 when no imprints appeared, evidence suggests that they were working together.[10] Even after 1810 when Coverly had purchased a new press and modern type without the long s, and White had moved to Charlestown, broadsides from White’s shop appeared in the Milk Street stock. Of the broadsides listed below, several could not have been printed before 1810 because the topic of the text was chronologically later. The Battle Between the Chesapeake and Shannon occurred in June 1813. A Bloody Battle concerned a conflict in Indiana in November 1811. It appears that Paul Jones’s Victory and Messmates . . . Captain Hull’s Victory were printed the same day but one victory had occurred in 1779, the other in 1812.

The evidence is circumstantial but plausible. White and Coverly probably worked together during the pre-1810 period. For the two years that Coverly’s bankruptcy was in progress, it would be impossible for him to produce products to sell without risk. Once he was clear of the court, he had no resources left to purchase paper, ink, or other supplies, much less a press. In 1802 White was so poor that his taxes were abated but he owned a press. Certainly it was not a coincidence that by 1810 he had personal property worth $200 and paid his taxes. In 1804, Coverly was stripped of everything. By 1810 he had enough to lease a shop, buy a press and type, and get started in business again.

Why White did not sign his work is not clear. He had signed two broadsides with topical songs in 1798, a jolly book of jokes in 1803, and several other pieces in between. His next signed work was The Comical Jester (1810), and he produced several more pamphlets over the next five years, including one for Coverly in 1814. When he applied for his pension extension in 1819, he had a pile of “books & ballads” worth more than his old watch. It is likely that he had continued to print with or without Coverly’s help and to market his wares at least in part through the Milk Street shop. There are forty-three broadsides in the collection that were probably printed in White’s shop. In addition, those that display White’s characteristic word spacing—Beggar Girl, Lady Washington’s Lamentation, and A Sweet Country Life —are actually signed by Coverly. The typesetting on these broadsides suggests that White worked with Coverly in the Boston shop even after he had moved to Charlestown. Beggar Girl presents a fascinating picture of cooperation. The last song, “Owen,” is set with the long s while the others use the more modern form. In the song, “Lash’d to the Helm,” it appears that the long s was removed in some instances and replaced with substitutes of a slightly different font. They did not print as well. White’s word spacing is present in both these texts.

In addition to the unusual word and letter spacing, a clue for the connection between the unsigned broadsides and White’s known work is a decorative border strip similar to Caslon’s “Pica Flower” #10 in his 1795 catalog and in Isaiah Thomas’s Specimen of Isaiah Thomas’s Printing Types (36).[11] White used this design frequently in his publications, from The Plain Path-way to Heaven (1788) and The New-England Primer (1789) to Letters on Courtship and Marriage (1802). Eight broadsides in the Thomas collection include this design.

The American Hero

The Christian’s Song

Female Drummer

Kate and Her Horns

A Lover’s Lamentation

On the Dark Day

Patrick O’Neal 

Tom Bolin

Woodcuts also help to identify items printed in White’s shop. A group of unusual designs appears on a number of unsigned broadsides in the Thomas collection as well as several in other repositories. In two of these, the broadside also has White’s distinctive decorative border type element.

Battle of the Kegs

The Blue Bells of Scotland (MSaE)

Female Drummer

Granny Wales

Lord Cornwallis’s Surrender

A Lover’s Lamentation (decorative type element)

Old Bachelor’s Last Prayer (MSaE)

Old Maid’s Last Prayer

Patrick O’Neal

Polly Wand

The Soldier’s Drill (MSaE, decorative type element)

United States Frigate Boston’s Battle (RiPB-H)

The Yankey’s Return from Camp (MSaE)

Some of the sheets with these distinctive cuts and several others also have cuts from other works with White’s imprint.

Battle of Bunker Hill

Battle of the Kegs

A Bloody Battle

Brother Sailor

Corydon and Phillis

The Country ’Squire

A Death Song of an Indian Chief

Erin Go Brah

The Exiles of Eden

The Happy Man

Margaret’s Ghost

The Orphan Boy

Robinson Crusoe

Robinson Crusoe

Saw Ye My Hero George

The Union

Other broadsides in the Thomas collection have distinctive type spacing, suggesting that they were also printed in White’s shop.

The Battle Between the Chesapeake and Shannon

The Duke of Cumberland’s Frolick

A Few Lines Composed on the Dark Day

The Last Words of S. Tully

The Lawyer Outwitted

Love in a Tub

Love in a Tub

A Lover’s Lamentation

Mary’s Dream

Messmates. 3 Cheers . . . Captain Hull’s Victory

The New Erin Go Bragh

An Ode on the Comet

On Samuel Tully and John Dalton

Paul Jones’s Victory

Pompey and His Associates

Theatre on Fire

Joseph White and Charles Cambridge

In 1788, after a brief association with John Norman, Joseph White set up his own shop at the end of Prince Street, “near Charles River Bridge.”[12] That same year Coverly Sr. maintained a shop a few blocks closer to town, “at the corner of Back Street, leading to Charles River Bridge.”[13] White’s partner was Charles Cambridge, who had also been associated with John Norman, printing Sacred Harmony (1789) from plates Norman had used in The Massachusetts Harmony (1784). Cambridge had also published Bickerstaff’s Genuine Almanack. . . 1787 (1786), which was probably printed by Norman using pages from his own Weatherwise’s Town and Country Almanack for 1787 (1786). White and Cambridge maintained the shop on Prince Street from 1788 until 1793, and White kept the shop alone until 1810 when he moved to Charlestown (Franklin 68, 488). Coverly Sr. printed The American Primer Improved (1799) for Charles Cambridge, who was then in Amherst, New Hampshire.

When Coverly Jr. collected broadsides in his shop to sell in bulk to Isaiah Thomas, a number of items with strong connections to Joseph White’s press were among them. For a number of reasons, it is likely that at least forty-three broadsides in the collection were printed in Joseph White’s shop.

[1] For example, Coverly charged seventeen cents per dozen, or $.014 each, for a dramatic topical broadside, Rodgers & Victory, printing the price break on the bottom of the sheet.

[2] Plymouth Journal in Plymouth, Massachusetts, 1785-86; Amherst Journal in Amherst, New Hampshire, 1795-96; Grafton Minerva in Haverhill, New Hampshire, 1796-97; and Orange Nightingale in Newbury, Vermont, 1796-97.

[3] First published by Thomas Bennett in London in 1770, Norman made an “Americanized” version of the same work printed by George Willig in Philadelphia (1791) and reprinted by Willig (1805). The Norman engraving may have originally been made for the 1776 edition of this tutor.

[4] Two records in the International Genealogical Index list a Joseph White born in Boston on February 27, 1755, without further details. Another record lists a Joseph White born the same day to Josiah and Sarah in Weymouth, Massachusetts, in Norfolk County. White claimed to be sixty-three in May 1819 when he applied for his Revolutionary War service pension, but was reported to be eighty-one at the time of his death in March 1836, confirming the February 1755 birth date.

[5] An Narrative of Events, as they occurred from time to time, in the Revolutionary War. Sold at No. 206, Main-Street, Charlestown, [1833?]. A copy of this book is in his service jacket in the National Archives (M804 Series, reel 2556. Rev War Pensions and Bounty Land Warrants, 131). There is also a copy at AAS.

[6] The 1790 census placed Joseph White in Boston with a son, wife, and another female in the household. In the 1800 census, White was listed in Charlestown, with three males and his wife in the household. In 1810 Joseph White Jr. is listed in Charlestown with a large young family, while his father has only a woman about his age in the household. There were a number of other White families in Charlestown so they may have been part of a larger clan.

[7] Noted by catalogers at the John Hay Library at Brown University.

[8] My thanks to AAS Curator of Newspapers Vincent Golden for this observation and other help understanding White’s printing characteristics. He also identified the “Old Dutch” type that Coverly used on some later broadsides.

[9] White in turn had association with Ezekiel Russell (1743-96), who had used several of White’s most unusual cuts some years earlier. See particularly The Downfall of Justice (1777) and A Touch Upon the Times (1797). Russell’s typesetting techniques are echoed in White’s work; see particularly Russell’s Young Convert’s First Experiences (1795). A New Touch on the Times (1779) is credited to Russell but seems more likely to be a White piece.

[10] It has to be remembered as well that a printing shop could not function with only one person. A minimum of two persons was needed to run the press. One would ink the type and lay on and remove the paper; the other would heft the bar that closed the press and printed the page.

[11] Thomas used this strip on a number of pages in his Hieroglyphic Bible (1788) but seldom after that. Ezekiel Russell used it in his edition of Bickerstaff’s Boston Almanack (1791) as a border for a stagecoach cut and Samuel Hall used it to create a box around a list of broadsides that he printed in Salem from around 1781 to 1785.

[12] Addresses are taken from publications and Boston Directories, 1803-9.

[13] Noted on his publication of Lydia Willis’s Madam Willis’s Letters, and Her Character (1788).