Tuesday, April 23, 2019

In Business - Jane Aitken (1764-1832) Philadelphia Printer, Publisher, Bookbinder, & Bookseller.

Neues Bilderbuch für Kinder, 1799

The American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia tells us that Jane Aitken (1764-1832) was a longtime citizen, bookbinder, & printer of Philadelphia, the eldest daughter of Robert & Janet (Skeoch). She was born on July 11, 1764, in Paisley, Scotland, where her father ran a stationer's store & circulating library until 1771 when he moved his wife Janet, Jane, & second daughter Margaret, to Philadelphia. She is known for her extraordinary skill as a printer & a bookbinder, the only great woman bookbinder of the early American republic. Her greatest printing achievement was the Thomson Bible of 1808.

Her father Robert Aitken was a talented printer & bookbinder. Within one month of his arrival in Philadelphia, he had established a large & successful bookstore. In 1773, he published Aitken's General American Register, & the Gentleman's & Tradesman's Complete Annual Account Book, & Calendar...for the Year of Our Lord, 1773 which proved his proficiency in the book arts. Based on her own proficiency & the similarity & continuity of bookbinding & printing styles sustained long after her father's death, Aitken must have learned the bookbinding & printing trades at an early age.

Despite Robert Aitken's hard work & established reputation he died leaving to his daughter Jane an enormous amount of debt of $3,000. Aitken's debts, as revealed in the Aitken-Vaughan papers, were largely those incurred by Jane's late brother-in-law Charles Campbell, a clock & watchmaker, for whom Robert Aitken had signed a number of notes. The debts did not, as was long believed, result from the printing of the Aitken Bible of 1782—the first English language Bible printed in America.

Aitken was thirty-eight years old, when she inherited the family printing & bookbinding business. Like her father, Jane Aitken was an extremely talented & prolific printer & bookbinder. She was responsible for printing a number of publications after she took over her father's business, including contracts from the American Philosophical Society, the Philadelphia Female Association, & the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture, to name just a few. At least sixty of her published works are known from the period 1802 to 1812. Her most important work, according to the contemporary historian of printing Isaiah Thomas, was the four-volume Thomson Bible of 1808, which firmly established Jane's Aitken's reputation. This Bible was a new translation prepared by Charles Thomson, former secretary of the Continental Congress, the first English translation from the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament). It is also likely that it was the only Bible ever printed by a woman in America. The typeface Aitkens used for the Thomson Bible was an attractive & utilitarian type developed in 1796 by two Scotsmen named Binney & Ronaldson at their Philadelphia type foundry. It is a Transitional typeface, between Old Style & Modern.

Jane Aitken never married. Although her youngest sister Mary Ann managed to get married & have children, Jane's single status might have had more to do with her independent & ambitious nature than a lack of opportunity. A lack of marriage prospects also might have resulted from the family's financial instability. Also, as the oldest & the second most experienced printer in the Aitken family Jane might have decided to remain unmarried in order to better assist her father with the printing business. At any rate, Jane spent the entirety of her adult life struggling to contend with her father's legacy: a solid reputation for printing, enormous debt, & the responsibility of two younger sisters, one recently widowed with three children. It is unknown whether Jane's mother, Janet, was still alive at her father's death in 1802. Jane also had an older brother Robert Aitken Jr., a printer, whom her father had disinherited some time before his death in 1802. Considered only a minor talent, Robert Aitken Jr. was apparently incapable of providing assistance to his overburdened sister.

One person who did provide assistance for many years after her father's death was her friend the American Philosophical Society's Librarian John Vaughan (1756-1841, APS 1784). Nevertheless, the relationship between him & Aitken is ambiguous. Although he is described as a tireless supporter of Aitken, Vaughan couldn't - or wouldn't -- prevent her printing equipment from being seized & sold at a Sheriff's sale in 1813. Afterward, he bought most of her equipment & leased it back to her, albeit on advantageous terms. In spite of continuous printing work, Jane was sometimes forced to rely on bookbinding for her livelihood. The extant bound editions of her work include some four hundred volumes for the American Philosophical Society, a number of author's presentation copies of her imprints & the first receipt ledger for the Athenaeum of Philadelphia. The bindings of these volumes reveal extraordinary skill & taste. Also, the similarity of these bindings to those issued from her father's shop from the 1780's to 1802 raises the possibility that she was responsible for much of the bindery output, in design, if not production. The quality of the examples of her bindings qualifies Aitken as a distinguished practitioner in the history of American bookbinding; in fact, the only woman bookbinder with such skill known from this period.

Aitken's great skill, hard work, & even Vaughan's generosity as a benefactor were not enough to overcome the burden of her inherited debts, because in 1814 Jane served time for her debts in a Norristown, Pennsylvania, prison. While it is uncertain exactly how long the prison term lasted, Aitken is recorded as doing binding work in 1815. After 1815 the record of her activities becomes very sparse. The 1819 city directory lists her as "late printer," & she died on September 5, 1832 at the age of 68. It is difficult to determine exactly when & why Aitken finally retired from printing & bookbinding; but this appears to have been shortly after 1815 for the health-related reasons given in her obituary. It reported that she died after a "long & painful illness."