Collecting Delaware Books

Delaware's First Published Book
by C. A. Weslager

Museum reproduction of old printing press
Museum reproduction of
early printing press

James Adams was Delaware's first printer, and also the state's first publisher. Today, a publisher, from the Latin publicare, "to make public," designs and markets a book, but he does not necessarily print it. Many modern publishers find it more economical to subcontract production to printers, engravers, and binders. For example, nine of my books were published by four different university presses, and I never knew the names of the firms responsible for the printing!

In James Adams's Wilmington shop, which he advertised as his "printing-office," he specialized in "job printing," namely, billheads, receipts, posters, circulars, acts of the legislature, and other printing orders by his customers.

In the same "printing-office" he published books, pamphlets, almanacs, tracts, etc., in which he invested his own money. He sold these works under his publisher's imprint. Prior to 1790 there were no copyright laws, and he often reprinted works others had already published at home and abroad.

How Adams came to Wilmington in 1761 to start his own business is told by Evald Rink in Printing in Delaware, 1761-18001, portions based on Dorothy L. Hawkins short article "James Adams, the First Printer of Delaware."2 I'll defer to these competent writers for biographical data, and devote my limited space to the earliest works Adams published in Delaware. Although he turned out hundreds of pages of job printing, some bearing his name, I'll confine myself to his role as the pioneer Delaware publisher.

During his first year in Delaware, Adams published four items under his imprint which he advertised in the November 5, 1761 edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette. Delaware did not have its own newspaper, and the Gazette had subscribers in the lower three counties. He also hoped that the packet boat might bring orders from Philadelphia, the largest city in the colonies.

I enumerated the four titles in a column I wrote for Spare Time in 1948, pointing out that all four were printed in the same year.3 Proof is lacking which one came first off the press. The following extends my original comments based on the latest information.

1. The Wilmington Almanack (which applies to the calendar of the following year, 1762) authored by Thomas Fox. Although it contains 18 leaves, I do not rate it as a book. Nevertheless, it was the first almanac published in Delaware and a worthy collectible. Adams continued to print subsequent almanacs edited by Fox and others. Fifty years ago I recall seeing a Fox almanac, and another by John Tobler, also published by Adams, in Theodore Buckalew's little antique store in Wilmington, but they did not then excite me. My reaction would be different today if I saw an almanac published by James Adams.

drawing of colonial printing press
Drawing of colonial
printing press

2. The Advice of Evans Ellis. This is not a book, but a broadside repeating a letter which Evans Ellis wrote to his daughter Lydia while he was at sea. A copy of this work has been preserved at the John Carter Brown Library, Providence, R. I. The reference librarian, Daniel J. Slive, advised me (personal correspondence 6/29/92) that it is printed on one side of a single sheet, two columns wide, approximately 8 by 13 inches. Adams's advertisement indicated the price was three pence each or two shillings a dozen. The Brown Library copy is the only one known to exist, but one cannot be sure that others may not turn up.

3. The Child's New Spelling Book. I have never seen this publication, but the word "book" may be misleading since the publication was advertised for one shilling or a dozen copies for eight shillings. It may have been a pamphlet.

4. The Merchant and Trader's Security. Adams advertised this at seven shillings, six pence, indicating it may have been a work of some size. I have never seen it either, but the likelihood is that it was the only one of the four 1761 publications that qualifies as Delaware's first published book.

Personally, I think I would get a bigger thrill in locating the Adams book published during his second year in Delaware, which I also cited in Spare Time, Thomas Dilworth's A New Guide to the English Tongue, Wilmington, 1762. This was an American reprint of a book written by an English schoolmaster. Adams's version contain more than 142 pages, and Rink states copies are known to be in existence.

Of course, the two-volume work, Laws of the Government of New Castle, Kent and Sussex Upon Delaware, which Adams published in 1763, would also be worth turning up in the dust of an old attic. That would be a rainbow on a stormy day.

Adams's most sought prize is John Filson's The Discovery, Settlement, and Present State of Kentucke, published in Wilmington in 1784.4 Filson taught school in Wilmington and went west over the mountains when the stump-studded clearings were becoming log cabin towns in what became the fifteenth state. He returned with the rare manuscript he had written which became Adams's most distinguished historical volume. Copies are rare possessions at the Wilmington Institute Free Library and the Morris Library at the University of Delaware.


1. Rink, Evald. Printing in Delaware, 1761-1800,1969, Eleutherian Mills Historical Library, Wilmington, Del.

2. Hawkins, Dorothy L. "James Adams, the First Printer of Delaware," Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, XXVIII (1934), p. 28-63.

3. Weslager, C. A. "Delaware Books and Authors," Spare Time, Hambleton Co., Wilmington, vol. 1, no.16 (1948): 5, 13. Rink, ibid. , p. 14 lists the identical titles and concludes there is no reason to assign priority to anyone title over the others.

4. [Howe's Usiana in 1954, once a standard price guide, listed the Adams edition of the Filson book as very rare and worth more than $1000. Applying the rate of inflation. it might be valued in five figures today. I have found no copies on the market in recent years. Several reprints are available at modest price. — Editor]

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