Isaiah Thomas Broadside Ballads Project

Verses in Vogue with the Vulgar


Type FoundryImage from The Book of Trades; or, Library of the Useful Arts (1807)


The early nineteenth century was a time of great change in the art of printing. Type with the long s was fading from use as fonts with the short s replaced it—Benjamin Franklin bemoaned the loss of the long s in the American Mercury as early as May 10, 1790 (Silver 147).  Relief engravings cut into wood rather than type metal were beginning to alter the character of illustrations (Reilly xv, fn. 8).

All of Coverly’s type and illustrative stock were sold in his bankruptcy proceedings between 1802 and 1804, so before starting over, he had to procure new stock from local engravers and from dealers of new and used type. Thus the collection of broadsides that Isaiah Thomas purchased in June 1814 is an exhibit of printing shop supplies available in Boston at the turn of the nineteenth century: the old and new type styles, the old-fashioned linear metal relief cuts, and the more artistic woodcuts that were taking their place.

Most of the broadsides in the Thomas collection appear to be set in Caslon type. Those printed by Nathaniel Coverly Jr. after he opened the new shop on Milk Street are set in a type with a modern s. He no longer had the array of decorative elements that adorned his work in the 1790s. His sheets are generally plain with a few styles of decorative border used between columns of text, and on some, a relief cut or two illustrating the text. He was partial to the manicule and used it often.

Coverly had a few sets of display type in other styles in his shop. He used an italic style with an unusual A and Y (such as in The Yankees Return from Camp). Several broadsides in the collection without imprint use an outline-style display type (such as The Death of General Wolfe: Together with John Bull's Description of a Church).

His typesetting technique is reasonably accurate but there are broadsides that may have been rushed to the press before careful proofreading, resulting in misspelled title words and other typesetting errors (see The Embargo). Inverted commas used as apostrophes and some letters in the title in a smaller font suggest that Coverly’s shop simply did not have enough stock to go around (see American Manufacturers and Hail Columbia). Sometimes not enough care in planning the layout resulted in text squeezed into the leading space or the last few paragraphs of the body text (Hull's Victory: or, Huzza for the Constitution and The American Constitution Frigate's Engagement with the British Frigate Guerriere), or a second lyric being set in a smaller-sized font (Mary, Marry John; Female Drummer: and The Blue Bell of Scotland; and The Sea Captain; or, Tit for Tat).

In typesetting, there are two elements at play, the size of the base of the letters of the font in use, and the skill or habits of the typesetter himself. There is a large group of broadsides in the collection that is set in a Caslon type that seems to have a wider base. This characteristic resulted in looser nesting of the letters in words. This type, which includes a long s character, is recognizable as different from the type in use in Coverly’s shop. Because of the larger base size, texts appear more as letters than words. The font has round rather than oval o’s and an f character that does not kern with the next letter. In addition, spaces between the words are sometimes larger than usual. These spaces were created by the typesetter, who chose larger filler pieces to stretch words apart. One expects these in justified texts, but the characteristic appears in non-justified texts as well. Both of these traits are visible in the work of Joseph White.


Lack of capital to purchase good paper plagued both Coverly and White for most of their careers. The broadsides in the Thomas collection are printed on a variety of very poor quality paper, most of it off-color and blemished, with torn or deckled edges.[2] Looking over the collection, John Bidwell, an authority in early American paper, remarked on the fact that most of the broadsides were printed on wrapping paper or other sheets that would have been considered waste in most print shops.[3] In general the paper was not sized and is very flimsy and delicate so that the ink did not print with sharp edges. Without enough paper to print large editions, Coverly was forced to reset his most popular items when stock was low. Because of this, copies of his best-sellers such as The Happy Child, The London Apprentice, The Golden Bull, The Major’s Only Son, and Kate and Her Horns have survived in several editions.


[1] Many thanks to AAS Curator of Newspapers Vincent Golden for his assistance with this section.

[2] A “deckled” edge is the raw edge of handmade paper as it comes from the manufacturer. In a deckled edge the fiber pieces used to make up the paper can be seen becoming thinner. When the page is torn, the fibers are of consistent density right to the edge. Broadsides were often printed with two or even assembled on a large sheet of paper. Once printed, they were separated to be sold individually, often torn apart rather than being cut. There are very few cut edges in the Thomas collection.

[3] See also Bidwell 299-342.