John Wilson & Son, Printers

by Hannah Elder, Reproductions Coordinator

One of my favorite things about studying history is the plethora of perspectives and areas that can be explored. While in library school, I discovered the study of book history. Massachusetts, the location of the first printing press in British North America, is an excellent place to study book history. And where better to study Massachusetts history than the MHS? During our time of working from home, I’ve been compiling a list of resources on the history of books, printing, printers, and booksellers in New England. I’m still working on the list, but I wanted to highlight some of the items from it in the meantime.

One of my favorite pieces of printing history at the MHS is a typewritten manuscript entitled “John Wilson Reminiscences.” Written in 1903, it contains the memories of John Wilson, who worked with his father, also John Wilson, as a printer in Boston and Cambridge in the nineteenth century.

Wilson's Reminiscences
The opening page of Wilson’s Reminiscences

Here is a bit of their story:

The elder John Wilson got his start in printing as an apprentice at a printing office in Glasgow, Scotland. He held positions at printing offices across the United Kingdom and Ireland, eventually opening his own shop in Manchester, England. There, the younger John Wilson joined his father’s shop, working at the hand-powered printing press. After several years of growth, and a succession of larger and larger premises, the elder Wilson decided to move to a larger city. Wilson describes his father’s decision making as such:

In 1846, feeling that Manchester was not a publishing centre, my father thought it would be advisable to move to London. Having, however, some friends in Boston, Mass. and his family being large, he thought that, perhaps, the latter place would be better. To decide the matter, I said to him one day, “Well, father, suppose we toss up. Heads I win, tails you lose.” We tossed and heads won. So we decided to go to America. (Wilson, 2)

Once the Wilsons arrived in Boston, they were met with great generosity from the community. In one anecdote, Wilson recalls a visit from the Rev. Dr. Ephraim Peabody in which the minister offered to assist the Wilsons in expanding their business. Wilson requested funding for an Adams Power Press. This machine powered press would allow the Wilsons to print far more material and expand their business. In a matter of days, Peabody gathered investments from twenty four backers, enough to buy a new press and move into a larger shop. The investors included Rev. Dr. Francis Parkman, Peter C. Brooks, J. Ingersoll Bowditch (who also bought a sign for the shop), N. L. Frothingham, and George Washington Warren. With the success of the new press, the Wilsons were able to pay back their investors within two years.

Over the years, John Wilson and Son printers worked on publications for many prominent Bostonians (including MHS’s own Charles Francis Adams) and Massachusetts organizations. The firm even printed the Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society for a number of years. A selection of the more than 350 publications printed by the John Wilson and Son available at MHS include:

The elder John Wilson passed away in 1868, but his son continued in the printing business. In 1879, the University Press in Cambridge was offered for sale and John Wilson purchased it, along with Charles E. Wentworth. They kept the name John Wilson and Son.


University Press Building
The University Press Building, ca. 1870. The caption indicates that John Wilson is standing on the parapet of the building, above the letter “E” in “PRESS”

Also in the MHS collection are three letterbooks from the University Press era of John Wilson and Son. The letterbooks include indices of correspondents, as well as acknowledgements for supplies and manuscripts received, copies of letters sent with proofs and regarding editorial changes, receipts for cash received, and reports of printing prices.

Sample letterbook
A sample letterbook page, dated 17 May 1880

A final item related to John Wilson and Son is William B. Reid’s “My reminiscences covering a period of sixty years with John W. Wilson & son, printers.” Reid was an employee at the printing firm under the younger John Wilson and continued on after Wilson’s death in 1903. I have yet to view this account, but I’m excited to read another perspective on the printing firm.

To find more items related to book history and printing in the MHS collection, take a look through our catalog, ABIGAIL. To learn more about the library and our services during the COVID-19 closure, visit the Reference Services During COVID-19 Closure page of our website.