Printing in Colonial Virginia


Printing came to Virginia relatively late in its colonial development. For more than a century after its founding, the colony’s governors deemed printing a destabilizing influence to the standing order and actively opposed introducing printing into their dominion. Often that resistance came at the order of their superiors in London. Thus when William Parks was finally authorized to produce imprints for the government in 1728, his commission was limited. He could produce little more than what the government required. Still, the availability of the few allowed imprints, such as his Virginia Gazette and Virginia Almanack, created a growing market for imprints produced in Williamsburg. That growth wrought a conflict for Virginia’s solitary press between the demands of that new market and the needs of the government. After 1750, Parks’s successors—William Hunter and Joseph Royle—faced these diverging interests with increasing difficulty. Hunter was able to maintain the governor’s control of the press only by replacing his office staff, while Royle was facing the imminent arrival of a competitor when he died in 1766. Royle’s passing marked the end of the colonial printing monopoly. Multiple press offices would become the norm in Virginia, just as resistance to imperial authority sparked a revolution.

Printing by Authority

The arrival of printing in England in the 1470s led to the grant of a monopoly over the new technology to the Stationers’ Company of London by the Tudor dynasty. With the rise of the Stuart kings after 1600, that monopoly was transformed into a Licensing Act. The act gave the Crown the ability to increase imprint production while retaining control over the printers. Such controls became the standard employed by the succession of royal and parliamentary governments seen in England’s seventeenth-century conflicts—the license gave an authority to print, usually in service to the grantor. Hence, the ability of print materials to shape opinion and move contemporaneous events was well known by the 1680s when the first attempt to bring a printing press into Virginia was made.

Sir William Berkeley

Virginia’s royal governor Sir William Berkeley embodied this “printed by authority” mentality, as can be seen in his infamous 1671 comment that he thanked the almighty that “there are no free schools nor printing, and I hope we shall not have these [for a] hundred years; for learning has brought disobedience, and heresy, and sects into the world, and printing has divulged them, and libels against the best government.” But Berkeley’s departure after Bacon’s Rebellion (1676) prompted one Gloucester County merchant, John Buckner, to bring a printer to his store in 1682. By February 1683, William Nuthead had set up shop and printed a copy of the laws passed by the last General Assembly. Governor Sir Thomas Culpeper, second baron Culpeper of Thoresway, and his Council were taken aback, ordering Buckner and Nuthead to cease printing completely until the “King’s pleasure” could be determined. That determination was quite evident in the instructions carried by the next governor, Francis Howard, Baron Howard of Effingham, when he arrived early in 1684 that Charles II specifically barred printing from Virginia. So Nuthead went on to Maryland to ply his trade.

This situation had changed by 1730, however, when the first authorized press arrived in Virginia. The rapid physical and demographic growth of the colony, alongside changes to Virginia’s laws accompanying the expansion of chattel slavery, meant that information distribution by print materials had become essential; no longer could the traditional manuscript transmission of information keep up with these transformations. The assembly was pressed repeatedly in the 1720s by county court petitions asking for printed copies of the colony’s laws; each time the matter was tabled. But in February 1728, William Parks, printer to the Maryland colony, proposed publishing a collection of the Virginia laws then in force. This time the assembly agreed to the proposition, asking further that he also print the laws of each assembly session. Needs, it seems, now outweighed any remaining fears about bringing printing to Virginia.

The Printing Monopoly

The History of the First Discovery and Settlement of Virginia

Still, Parks’s commission was limited to those two distinct productions, both issued at first from his office in Annapolis, Maryland. Soon, however, the volume of his Virginia work eclipsed that of his Maryland contract, requiring a second office. The new Williamsburg office opened in the summer of 1730, thereby yielding the date regularly cited for printing’s arrival there. The efficacy of having a printing press close at hand became apparent to the General Assembly over the next two years. In June 1732, it granted him a broader commission as “Printer to the Colony,” thus authorizing his Williamsburg office. That commission allowed him to produce whatever saleable imprints he desired, as long as their production did not interfere with the public work. Specifically, Parks was allowed to publish a weekly newspaper, the Virginia Gazette, which he saw as the key to his success. This particular commission set the terms for the printing trade in Virginia for the next thirty-five years. The assembly would authorize just a single printing office in the colony and its priority was serving the government’s needs. With this authority, Parks worked for the government for twenty years.

Yet his new Williamsburg office also produced imprints that became standards in Virginia, driving the growth in demand for nongovernment imprints among an ever-enlarging audience. From 1730 on, Parks produced his annual Virginia Almanack and from 1736, he published the colony’s first newspaper, the Virginia Gazette. By 1750, he had also produced a series of imprints that were each the first in America: a manual for county court justices, a book of recipes and household hints, and a nonprofessional’s medical handbook. Beside these were the required set of session laws for each General Assembly session, the assembly’s journals, and the proposed volume of the collected laws of the colony issued in 1733. To sustain this production, he built a paper mill, the first in the American South. Through this all, Virginia continued to grow and change, which convinced the assembly to commission a new collection of the laws in force in 1749. Parks rose to the challenge, embarking for England for fresh supplies to finish the task. But he died en route, leaving the unfinished project to his foreman, William Hunter.

William Hunter's Virginia Gazette

A native Virginian, Hunter brought a different set of skills to his tenure as the colony’s printer. Through a network of relatives and their business associates, he built up the retail functions of the Williamsburg printing office, principally in bookselling and blank forms, while improving the distribution of all of his imprints by working with Benjamin Franklin to reinvigorate and enlarge the moribund colonial postal system. Meanwhile he continued publishing the assembly’s session laws and journals, the Virginia Gazette, and the Virginia Almanack. But the office was challenged by the government’s increasing demand for work during the French and Indian War (1756–1763), especially in producing large quantities of paper currency. Hunter’s term, however, was also controversial. Illness took him to England for three years, leaving his business in the hands of John Stretch, his bookbinder, who apparently used the press to publish material opposing Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie‘s policies. In 1759, Hunter returned—with his soon-to-be successor, Joseph Royle, in tow—and restored the office to its pro-government orientation. Two years later, Hunter died, leaving his business to Royle, though encumbered by a condition that required him to share its profits with his late master’s infant son as a partner.

The Scotsman Royle proved to be the most controversial of the early, authorized Virginia printers; his term would also be the briefest, just over four years. From his start in 1761, Royle maintained a close relationship with Lieutenant Governor Francis Fauquier, and pursued the same obedient course that marked the resident years of Parks and Hunter. Unfortunately for him, such obedience was fast falling out of favor with many of his customers and with their representatives in the House of Burgesses. Yet the Virginia Gazette showed little evidence of the debates then raging in the General Assembly while under Royle’s care. He did publish, as a contractor and not an editor, several pamphlets written from both sides of the Parsons’ Cause controversy. But when the House of Burgesses ordered him to publish copies of their Stamp Act Resolves in 1765, Royle boldly refused, probably at Fauquier’s order. By generating enmity in the Assembly, he also sowed the seeds of competition. The leaders of the anti–Stamp Act faction sent their resolves to William Rind in Maryland for publication, and then invited the printer to move to Williamsburg and take up Royle’s commission. Royle’s death in January 1766 kept the printing monopoly alive only briefly. His shop foreman, Alexander Purdie, became the de facto public printer; but once Rind established himself in Williamsburg, the Assembly granted him the post instead. Purdie quickly went into partnership with John Dixon, and refocused his efforts on expanding the nongovernment side of the business. Thus, the Virginia printing trade was never again in the hands of a single person; the printing monopoly was dead.

The Williamsburg Printing Office

In the printing monopoly era, the work of Williamsburg’s press centered on generating government documents. Whenever the General Assembly met, the office regularly published its journals. When it recessed, the office published the laws that the assembly had just enacted. If a major address was made during the session, the printer was usually ordered to print that also, and if the assembly was impressed with a sermon preached to members during their meeting, it would often order that published as well. Between sessions, the printing office produced blank legal forms for official use, ranging from proclamations issued as broadsides, to warrants and commissions printed on smaller sheets, to paper currency published several notes to a page. The office’s bookbinder also produced blank books, ruled and unruled, for the use of government officials.

Alongside this government work, the press issued imprints such as the Virginia Gazette that reflected the interests of an increasingly diverse public. As a whole, these imprints fell into three broad genres: informational, religious, and belle-letters. Naturally, informational imprints dominated the office’s production, growing from 65 percent to 80 percent of the work over time. While informational imprints largely consisted of the General Assembly’s journals and session laws, they also included the Gazette, the Almanack, and a variety of unique, descriptive texts on medical, monetary, and household affairs. The remaining production was split between religious and belle-letters, with religious texts slowly being supplanted by literary works over the period. Yet both of those genres were for the most part homegrown, so to speak, the handiwork of Virginia authors. Religious texts, mostly sermons, were an office forte in the Parks and Hunter years, while literature moved ahead in the Royle years.

These differing interests were aided and abetted by the office’s increasingly varied offering of books imported from Great Britain. From the beginning, a trade in unbound book-sheets was a part of the business. Such made the employment of a bookbinder in the shop less of a burden on the operation by providing him steady work. Hunter’s English sojourn helped accelerate the growth of bookselling by building connections with London suppliers. And during the Royle years, the office benefited from his connections to new supply sources in Edinburgh and Glasgow. So the shop’s need to produce imprints for local retail sales, which kept the press from idleness, could be reduced. Instead, the press could now focus its work on producing imprints for a wholesale trade among the multiplying number of country stores that emerged after 1720—the oft-derided “Scottish merchant” invasion. By 1765, the printing office’s principal nongovernment revenue came from this wholesale operation, led by bulk sales of the annual Virginia Almanack. Moreover, its chief source of cash derived from retail sales of blank forms, mostly the bonds and indentures used by those same merchants, allowing the shop to become a bank, providing cash for its customers.

Benjamin Franklin

Underpinning this entire operation was the ability to distribute the imprints gathered in Williamsburg. From the start, the office employed riders to deliver its products, and the office’s business records show that some riders even bought imprints in bulk to resell on their own. Eventually, the continental postal system became a part of the delivery system, especially after its revival and expansion under the care of William Hunter and Benjamin Franklin in the 1750s. This development helped the spread of newspaper reading in the American colonies generally and that of the Virginia Gazette specifically. Their system also facilitated communication between the colonies, an essential element in coordinating the growing resistance to imperial authority after the French and Indian War.

A Virginia Newspaper

Williamsburg’s Virginia Gazette was the most visible nongovernmental imprint issuing from the printing office; at the same time, the Gazette was the imprint with the least visible connection to government. Parks began its publication in 1736 with the government’s blessing because the Gazette readily served as a vehicle for official notices to the general public. The printer could employ whatever space the government did not require each week to his own ends, usually for his profit. When tied to the concurrent growth of the merchant trade, this license meant one-third to one-half of the space in the Gazette each week would be taken up by paid advertising. Moreover, those ads promoted the same stores that were buying the office’s imprints at wholesale for eventual resale to their customers. Hence, the Gazette promoted two complementary revenue flows into the printing office.

Those flows were important, just as was the government contract, because readers of the Gazette were not always subscribers to it; furthermore, subscribers often did not actually pay for the newspapers they received. Such was the nature of all colonial-era newspapers. Cash was always scarce, and debts were paid generally by “exchanges in kind” of goods and services, often called barter. This hard reality created an intricate and growing web of credit relationships across the Virginia landscape that then extended to Britain. Often, a Virginia planter’s ability to pay his debts, including one for a subscription to the Gazette, depended on a chain of account drafts from one merchant to another. Any break in the chain left those down the line bereft of payment. When one considers that many planters were paid but once per year—after receipt of their crop in Europe—any breaks in the chain could easily lead to debts being left unpaid for years on end.

For newspaper publishers in colonial America such delay could spell ruin, especially if the defaults multiplied after a bad year for whatever commodity was produced in that colony. The continuing profitability of Virginia tobacco before 1765 meant that the Williamsburg printers were less troubled by this problem than were their peers to the north. But their awareness of the problem among the tight network of colonial printers evidently impelled the diversification of the Williamsburg printing office. Indeed, the Revolutionary-era office of William Rind suffered from a lack of diversification and an overreliance on the fluctuating income of his Gazette, as would other printers in Virginia in the years after the Revolutionary War (1775–1783).


The appeal of the Virginia Gazette was not uniform among its readers, and its varied content reflected that fact. It included news accounts, opinion pieces, official proclamations, doggerel poetry, extracts from literary works, and any number of advertisements. The Virginia Gazette has most often been studied for its long run of poems written by Virginia authors, so reflecting popular culture, and for its coverage of Virginia events and views, so reflecting the political culture. Yet most of its content would not be original texts. Rather, much of what appeared each week was taken from another newspaper or magazine. Called “paste pot journalism” by historians, this practice is what made newspapers a vehicle for communication across space and time. Original content from one paper would be reprinted in many others, often without attribution.

This redistributive process was accelerated by the reforms to the colonial postal system wrought by Hunter and Franklin in the 1750s. As newspaper publishers themselves, each man understood the need for exchanges of news to keep their weekly papers viable. Consequently, they authorized free passage of newspapers through the postal system from one publisher to another, with the condition that the recipient of a paper returned the favor by dispatching a copy of his paper to the sender. This was relatively easy to accomplish, as newspapers in colonial America were simple one-sheet, four-page affairs, which made for a small parcel in transit. But that small size also meant that the space available in a Gazette was limited each week. Lengthy articles were often serialized to keep them from claiming the entire space in any one issue. Accordingly, what one sees in any particular Gazette can be recognized as being important either to the editor of the paper, or to the contributor paying for the item’s insertion, or both.

Thomas Jefferson Advertises for Runaway Slave

A production convention emerged among all colonial newspapers during this era: the outside pages (1 and 4) were set first each week, with the interior ones (2 and 3) set last. This reflects the way the type itself was assembled, from the outer edges of the printing frame toward the middle. This meant that any “breaking news” usually appeared astride the gutter between the inside pages. The back page became the focus of advertising that could spill back onto page 3; advertisements actually entailed the least amount of work to compose each week because many of the typeset ads were reused from week to week. The front page contained the longest articles, usually cribbed from other sources, but occasionally more items of local import appeared there, such as official proclamations and addresses. This type of content took the most time to compose simply because of its length, so normally it was set early in the week before publication. The interior pages generally show shorter articles that took less time to compose and could be inserted quickly. In all, it took thirty-two to thirty-six man-hours to compose and set a colonial newspaper like the Virginia Gazette.

February 1683
William Nuthead completes proof copies of the laws of the autumn of 1682 meeting of the General Assembly. He is ordered by Governor Thomas Culpeper to cease and desist from publishing them.
February 22, 1728
William Parks proposes to the General Assembly that he print the colony's collected laws. The assembly agrees and offers further work.
Summer 1730
William Parks commences publishing in Williamsburg, producing the "session laws" for the May 1730 General Assembly.
October 1730
William Parks publishes the first edition of the Virginia Almanack, intended for the Chesapeake region in 1731.
June 10, 1732
The General Assembly formally fixes William Parks's salary at £120 with the title "Printer to the Colony."
With help from George Webb of New Kent County, William Parks publishes A Collection of All the Acts of Assembly, Now in Force, In the Colony of Virginia in Williamsburg, the first compilation of Virginia laws.
William Parks publishes Every Man His Own Doctor: or, The Poor Planter's Physician by John Tennent, the first guide to domestic medicine printed in America.
William Parks publishes the first handbook for Virginia's county court justices, The Office and Authority of a Justice of the Peace, written by George Webb.
August 6, 1736
William Parks publishes the inaugural number of the Virginia Gazette, the colony's first newspaper.
William Parks publishes the first edition of The Compleat Housewife: or, Accomplish'd Gentlewoman's Companion by the late Eliza Smith, the first cookbook printed in America, which saw numerous later editions.
Spring 1744
William Parks opens a paper mill on Archer's Hope Creek outside of Williamsburg, the first such mill in British America south of Pennsylvania.
April 1, 1750
William Parks dies of pleurisy onboard the Nelson, en route to England; William Hunter succeeds him as Virginia's public printer.
July 1750
William Hunter suspends publication of the Virginia Gazette until the estate of William Parks is probated.
January 3, 1751
William Hunter issues the first number of his Virginia Gazette.
April 1751
William Hunter completes William Parks's last commission, the revised Laws of Virginia, two months before its deadline.
March 12, 1752
William Hunter is formally appointed as public printer of Virginia at £300 per year.
August 10, 1753
William Hunter is appointed with Benjamin Franklin as "His Majesty's Deputy Postmasters General for all His Dominions in North America." Hunter directly oversees all of the postal routes south of Annapolis.
June 20, 1756
William Hunter leaves for England; during his absence, his printing office is run by John Stretch until July 1759.
July 5, 1759
William Hunter returns to Virginia after a 37-month absence in England, where he recuperated after a period of ill health. This is also probably the date Alexander Purdie and Joseph Royle, Hunter's new office staff, arrive in Virginia.
August 14, 1761
William Hunter dies in Williamsburg.
November 5, 1761
Joseph Royle reports William Hunter's death to the General Assembly; the body formally confirms him as the colony's public printer.
January 26, 1766
Joseph Royle dies in Williamsburg. Alexander Purdie temporarily succeeds him as colony's public printer.
  • Kropf, Carl R. “Some New Light on William Parks.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 91, no. 1 (January 1983): 92–97.
  • McMurtrie, Douglas C. The First Printing in Virginia: The Abortive Attempt at Jamestown, the First Permanent Press at Williamsburg, the Early Gazettes, and the Work of Other Virginia Typographic Pioneers. Vienna, Austria: Printed for Herbert Reichner Verlag, 1935.
  • Wroth, Lawrence C. William Parks: Printer and Journalist of England and Colonial America. Richmond, Virginia: Appeals Press for the William Parks Club, 1926.
APA Citation:
Rawson, David. Printing in Colonial Virginia. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/printing-in-colonial-virginia.
MLA Citation:
Rawson, David. "Printing in Colonial Virginia" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 20 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2020, December 07
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