- Bringing Books into BaltimoreTracing Networks of Textual Importation, 1760–1825
In Baltimore, as in most early American cities both before and after the Revolution, the majority of texts available for consumption were produced elsewhere, either in other national print centers or internationally.1 Though Baltimore had a growing community of printers and booksellers whose output of texts increased from nothing in 1760 to over 100 imprints a year by 1820, the population still depended on texts produced either in the British Isles or increasingly in Philadelphia and New York to supply the quantity and variety demanded by the citizens of the growing city.2 Baltimore was one of the fast-growing cities in the new nation, and in the three decades from 1790 to 1820 the population increased by over 400 percent to roughly 62,000 individuals.3 This growth meant increased demand for publications, a demand that was met through importation more frequently than production. Texts were published in London, Dublin, Philadelphia, or elsewhere and then transported into Baltimore through personal connections, book trade networks, and a myriad of other ways. These books were physical and symbolic links tying together not only the major book-producing hubs but also smaller provincial cities in a web of interlocking relationships and shared cultural experiences. As James Raven and Leslie Howsam have described the transnational and transatlantic role of texts, “Books, periodicals and newspapers have served as ambassadors of thought, religion and nationhood, and they have connected peoples separated by land and sea and by political and sectarian borders.”4 As geopolitical relationships changed over the course of the eighteenth century, so, too, did many of the cultural motivators and trade relationships that circulated texts around the Atlantic world and into the city of Baltimore.
The demand for a greater selection of texts by readers created and sustained a variety of networks and relationships that were used to move texts into and between various provincial cities in the Atlantic world. Usually multiple and overlapping channels were active in importing texts into these communities, ranging from informal personal correspondence to highly organized national and international book trade networks. However, the details [End Page 62] of this trade, especially with regards to smaller cities, are often obscure. By examining how books were brought into Baltimore, their origin, and some of the strategies used to import them, new layers of knowledge are revealed concerning both the American book trades and the international market for books. Issues of credit, national sentiment, and patterns of consumption also become more apparent. This essay examines the mechanisms and relationships that brought books into Baltimore from international locations and, as American publication increased in the final decade of the eighteenth century and the early nineteenth century, those networks that helped circulate nationally produced books in Baltimore.
While Baltimore shared many characteristics with its larger and better-studied neighbors, its location as a gateway city and its population diversity offer opportunities for scholars to examine the ways various types of communities influenced the flow of texts throughout early America. Though Baltimore was by no means the only early American city with a significant Catholic population, as home to the first American Catholic bishop and with a Catholic population of around 12 percent, the city was an important center for the distribution of Catholic texts produced both nationally and internationally.5 However, the city’s role as a distribution center was not limited to Catholic texts. Seasonal influxes of farmers and merchants from western regions and access to one of the largest ports in the country also gave the city’s booksellers tremendous distribution potential. Baltimore’s growing population of African Americans, both slave and free, which made up about 22 percent of the total population, also contributes to the city’s appeal to scholars.6 Maryland, unlike other states in which slavery was legal, never legislated against teaching slaves to read, and Baltimore’s free black population was educated through Sunday schools and charity schools often run by African American churches.7 These opportunities, limited though they were, allowed Baltimore’s African American population to participate in the world of print in unique ways. Though in...