The Letterpress Years

Brattleboro’s Letterpress Years was mounted as a month-long exhibit at Brooks Memorial Library, opening October 11, 2017

Letterpress printing was the primary way information was printed and distributed from the 1500s through the mid-20th century.  Early settlers to New England brought their European letterpresses with them, finding fertile ground in Brattleboro to set up printing operations that blanketed the region with newspapers and other periodicals including one of the nation’s first female-run papers.

The exhibition will feature artifacts from this once-dominant industry, images of letterpress operations, a rogue’s gallery of key players from the times, interactive activities, and a timeline of Brattleboro’s rise to becoming one of the peak producers of books, magazines, and newspapers—and how this flood of activity affected the growth and settlement of the area.

The letterpress exhibition is curated by Stephanie Greene, a member of the Brattleboro Words Project leadership team. Greene is the daughter of the late Stephen Greene, co-owner—with his wife Janet—of the eponymous Stephen Greene Press, a prestigious, independent publishing company that operated in Brattleboro for 24 years before being sold to larger Boston publisher in 1978.

“Brattleboro is home to a rich history of publishing and printing, dating from the late 1700’s,” says Greene. “The Words Project creates an opportunity for the local historians and enthusiasts to collect and showcase this history. The collaboration between visiting scholars and residents will promote a broad and deep appreciation of our shared heritage that will serve as a model for other communities.”

Deacon John Holbrook

The papermaking, printing, bookmaking and publishing work of Deacon John Holbrook and his son-in-law, William Fessenden, was so successful that it is believed to have doubled the population of Brattleboro in the early 1800s. Webster’s spelling book was an early success, and many copies of what became known as “Holbrook’s Bibles” were also sold.

Royall Tyler

Royall Tyler, was a jurist, poet and playwright who wrote the first American dramatic comedy, The Contrast in 1787, which was a great success. Tyler was a federalist, and served prominently in the suppression of Shay’s rebellion, which brought him to Vermont for the first time. He lived in Guilford in 1791 and later in Brattleboro, and served as the state’s attorney for Windham County. As a jurist, he wrote, “Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the Supreme Court of Judicature. He was named the Chief Justice of Vermont’ Supreme Court in 1812. He died in Brattleboro, in 1826, and is buried in Prospect Hill cemetery.

George Crowell

George Crowell was one the most successful magazine publishers of his time. He came to Brattleboro in 1866 to work as a newspaper writer, but left that job after a year to start a women’s magazine, The Household. By 1890 he had over 80,000 subscriptions. Crowell wanted to make Brattleboro into a printing center of America, and invited competing publishers, Esther and Frank Housh, to set up shop in his offices in the Crosby Block.

Crowell was a philanthropist as well as a businessman, who created water works in Brattleboro, and brought city children living in poverty spend the summer in the town.

Edwin L. Hildreth

Edwin L. Hildreth bought out DeWitt Leonard Press in 1887. E.L.Hildreth & Company was a fine book printer in this town for 60 years and at its height had 90 employees. Later, in the 20th century, E.L. Hildreth & Company was a major printer for Yale University Press. In 1950 the company moved to Bristol, Connecticut.

Clarina Howard Nichols

Clarina Howard Nichols was born in West Townshend in 1810. As the editor and publisher of her second husband’s newspaper, the Windham County Reformer, she advocated for women’s rights, abolition, women’s suffrage, and the eradication of alcoholic beverages. In 1852, she was the first woman to speak in front of the Vermont State legislature, arguing that women should at the least be able to vote on topics related to children’s education.

Nichols moved to Kansas with other abolitionists, in an attempt to prevent that state from joining the Union as a slave state. She became the director of an orphanage for African American children during the Civil War.