Today in History

Today in History: March 13

Enoch Brooks' Curious Book

A Curious Hieroglyphick Bible
Worcester, Mass.: Isaiah Thomas, 1788.
American Treasures of the Library of Congress

Inside the Library of Congress' copy of a rare children's Bible, someone carefully wrote "Enoch Brooks' Book, Princeton, March 13th, 1789" in permanent ink. The inscription likely refers to Enoch Brooks of Princeton, Massachusetts, though he may have been too young to write it himself. Now a rare artifact of Americana, Brooks' book is one of only a few known copies of A Curious Hieroglyphick Bible, printed in 1788 by Isaiah Thomas in nearby Worcester, Massachusetts.  This book was the first American version of a novelty Bible that replaced some words with pictures to encourage children's interest as well as their reading skills. With nearly five hundred woodcuts by American artists, this Bible was also the most ambitious woodcut volume produced in America up to that time.

A Curious Hieroglyphick Bible is one of more than a hundred children's book titles published by Isaiah Thomas (1749-1831). A preeminent early American printer and pioneer publisher of children's literature, Thomas began his apprenticeship as a young boy in Boston, working under Zechariah Fowle. Over the course of a long career, Thomas published more than four hundred titles in many editions, for adults as well as for children, including the first dictionary printed in America. Also a bookseller, he eventually owned more than twenty bookstores in several states.

page from a children's book from 1787.
"A little Boy and Girl reading,"
A Little Pretty Pocket-Book: Intended for the Instruction and Amusement of Little Master Tommy, and Pretty Miss Polly, 78,
Worcester, Mass.: Isaiah Thomas, 1787.
Children's Literature, Rare Book and Special Collections

part of the front page of the Massachusetts Spy newspaper
Masthead and part of front page of The Massachusetts Spy
Paul Revere, engraver,
Boston: Isaiah Thomas, 1774 July 7.
American Women

One of Thomas' most significant ventures was The Massachusetts Spy, a newspaper he founded with Fowle in 1770. Widely read and exceedingly anti-British, his paper so angered Tory authorities that just three days before the battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775, Thomas was forced to smuggle his press out of Boston. He fled to Worcester, Massachusetts, where he quickly set up shop and remained as a resident for the next fifty-six years.

After the war, Thomas created the highly regarded Massachusetts Magazine, a literary publication and authored A History of Printing in America (1810)—the nation's first such history, and still a significant resource today. His most enduring legacy, however, is the American Antiquarian Society (external link) (AAS), which he established in Worcester in 1812, serving as its president until his death. Thomas willed his considerable library to the AAS. From his original 8,000-item collection, the Society's library has grown to include copies of two-thirds of everything printed in the United States through 1821. It remains one of the most complete collections of early American printed works in existence. By contrast, the Library of Congress holds more than 16,000 U.S. imprints from 1640 to 1800, which is almost half of all that were printed.