‘A copy of the Bay Psalm Book is expected to sell for over $15 million this fall. Learn the significance of the first book printed in British America and its legacy today.

Bay Psalm Book Title PageThomas Jefferson wrote, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” Before colonial America could have widely-distributed newspapers, they needed printing presses. So in a way, modern America media owes its origins to the first printing press in America that published the humble-looking Bay Psalm Book.

The first printing press in British America is remarkable for two reasons. First, it was established in Cambridge in 1639, just 19 years after the pilgrims landed at Plymouth. Considering the harshness of early New England settler life, 1639 extraordinarily early. Second, the first printer, Stephen Daye, was a locksmith by trade and selected to begin a printing office in Cambridge for unknown reasons.

The choice of a psalm book as the first major work to come thumping off Daye’s press is less perplexing. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was, after all, a religious community facing difficult circumstances. The colonists hired a group of 30 people to create a new translation of the psalms attending to “Conscience rather than Elegance, fidelity rather than poetry.” Their translation printed by Daye is now known as the Bay Psalm Book.

Bay Psalm Book FrontFrom the original 1,700 copies, only 11 remain. A surviving copy appearing for auction this fall is expected to sell for over $15 million.

The Bay Psalm Book’s appeal to collectors is heightened by the importance of printing in American history. Works like Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, James Otis’ Rights of British Citizens, and Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette sped the colonies down the path to independence. Presses were important too in providing people with news from the other end of the colonies. Sotheby’s does not exaggerate in describing the first book published in British America as “one of the greatest artifacts of American history.”

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