Baltimore History

The Sestercentennial of Baltimore’s First Printing Press

“The what-centennial?” you’re probably asking. Well, if nothing more, allow this as an opportunity to learn a great vocabulary word. The Latin expression for two-and-a-half is equivalent to ‘half-three’ in English, which comes from being halfway between the second and third integer. Half-three in Latin is ‘sestertius’, a contraction of ‘semis’ (halfway) and ‘tertius’ (third). Thus, a sestercentennial is a 250th anniversary. Marvelous!

Alright, now that we’ve dusted off that much-neglected vocab. word, let us turn next to the story of an ancient, long-forgotten citizen of Baltimore Town: Nicholas Hasselbach.

Evergreen House: built in 1858 for Stephen Broadbent, and notably the home of John Work Garrett II, who assembled an extraordinary collection of rare books some 30,000 strong.

Evergreen House: built in 1858 for Stephen Broadbent, and acquired by the Garrett Family in 1878. The library houses the JHU rare-book collection.

Nestled deep within the rare-book collection at Johns Hopkins University’s Evergreen Library, there is a section that is dedicated to Maryland-related titles. “Marylandia,” they call it, and it’s chock full of historical goodies. One of the most unassuming titles of all, however, resides on the spine of a small, red, leather-bound specimen. It reads “CONDUCT OF ANNAN AND HENDERSON,” and at first glance, it appears to lack any historical significance.


The prize of the collection.

But, much like Indiana Jones found out while searching for the holy grail in The Last Crusade—the simple, unassuming artifacts are the ones that tend to hold the deepest secrets.

A closer inspection reveals that the red leather binding is actually a case, almost like a glove. Remove the top, and out slides an even smaller, soft-cover, octavo pamphlet. The title page is missing a few pieces here and there, but the words are still decipherable: “A | DETECTION | OF THE | CONDUCT and Proceedings of | Meſſrs. Annan and Henderſon, Mem- | bers of the Aſſociate Preſbytary’s | whole Sitting at Oxford Meeting- | Houſe April the 18th. Anno Domini | 1764. Together with their Abet- | tors ; wherein is contained ſome | Remarks.” by John Redick-Le-Man.

Geez. Quite a title, huh? And a specific one at that!

What Makes This Little Book So Special?

Nicholas Hasselbach was the very first printer in Baltimore Town, and this is believed to be his first publication. A curious choice, perhaps, but no one has ever found a Hasselbach imprint that predates it. At least, not of his work in this province…

Baltimore in 1752, as remembered by John Moale, Jr.

Baltimore in 1752, as remembered by John Moale, Jr.

In the mid 18th century, Baltimore was but a small, ramshackle settlement on the red-clay banks of the Patapsco River. In 1749—the same year that Hasselbach, a German immigrant, traveled aboard the ship Elliot from Rotterdam to Philadelphia—a visitor described Baltimore Town in a letter as nothing more than “nine miserable log cabins.” The population grew, of course, and more buildings were added, but on the whole, we can presume that not too much had changed by the time that Hasselbach showed up with his printing press, sixteen years later.

Hasselbach, you see, had spent a decade-and-a-half honing his skills in Philadelphia. He started in Koch’s paper mill on the Wissahickon, and after learning the art of printing from Christoph Souer in Germantown, established his own press with Anthony Ambruster—a protégé of Ben Franklin—in Chestnut Hill, just north of Philly.

Sometime around 1764 or ’65, for reasons that are unknown, he decided to go south to Maryland. Perhaps he had heard that Baltimore Town needed a printer and saw himself fit for the job. Whatever the case, Hasselbach made the move with fonts in hand, ready to leave a lasting mark.

Though the first public mention of Hasselbach was not until July 6th 1765, when he purchased Lot No. 71—the approximate location of 414 East Baltimore Street—from Thomas Harrison (see Liber B., No. O., Folios 343 through 347), the deed hints that he had been in town for awhile: “THIS INDENTURE made . . . BETWEEN Thomas Harrison of Baltimore County in the Province of Maryland Merchant of the one part and Nicholas Haßelback (sic) of the same County and Province Printer of the other part.” If buying this property was Hasselbach’s first act in town, it probably would have, instead, noted that he was “of Philadelphia County in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.” Alas, the clerk at the county courthouse thought it sufficient enough to deem Hasselbach a local—and so he was.

Aside from a few tidbits here and there, Hasselbach remains an elusive character. His exact point of origin is uncertain. He may or may not have been the ‘Johannes Nicolaus Wilhelmus Haselbach’ who was born in Raubach, Prussia, on December 15th 1728 (and christened four days later). Yet, even in places where his existence is certain, barely any trace remains of the life that he once lived. Here, in Maryland, out of the three property deeds that were executed during his lifetime, only one bears a genuine signature: the first one, as mentioned above.


It looks as though this was an attempt by the clerk to copy Hasselbach’s signature, which was written in the archaic German script known as “Kurrentschrift.”

Admittedly, his handwriting leaves a lot to be desired. Yet, in fairness, he did not make his money as a scribe, or someone who had to physically write the words that he was printing. Hasselbach just needed to arrange the letters in the correct order—to mind his p’s and his q’s, if you will. And, considering that he was an 18th-century printer, during the era when the long ‘s’ reigned supreme, his ſ’s and his f’s as well! No small feat, that. No siree.

Sadly, Hasselbach’s time in Baltimore was short. Around 1770, he went to Europe to attend to some business matters, and was lost at sea, leaving a wife and three children back home. His last public record in Baltimore was a land transaction, on October 26th 1769. After that date, he vanished…

His widow and executrix, Catherine Hasselbach (née Steiz), settled his estate soon thereafter. A personal inventory was taken in January of 1772 (see Baltimore County Inventories, vol. 11, pp., 86 through 89), and his debts were paid off by July of 1775 (in the same volume, p. 294).

The inventory is probably our best insight into his life. Its total worth was appraised at a little more than £1,675 sterling, which would be close to $355,000 today. The items themselves are worth a read through in their own right: the most intriguing are his 21 violins. Was he a virtuoso? After hours, might Baltimoreans on a casual, late-evening stroll have heard the works of Bach or Vivaldi streaming out the windows of his print shop…? A tantalizing thought. And his 12 pictures—whom, or what did they depict? Perhaps there is a portrait of Nicholas Hasselbach, floating around somewhere. We can dream of such things…

George W. McCreary’s Reprint

Until recently, the closest that I had ever gotten to seeing the original was George Washington McCreary’s publication, The First Book Printed in Baltimore-Town: Nicholas Hasselbach, Printer. McCreary was the Assistant Secretary and Librarian at the Maryland Historical Society when, during the summer of 1902, he received a package in the mail of untold value. Inside it, among other 18th-century pamphlets, he found “A Detection…”, which, thenceforth, was the only extant example of Hasselbach’s work. McCreary gave the book to Robert Garrett who, evidently, gave it to his brother John—the proprietor of Evergreen House. It has been there ever since.

This is McCreary No. 220, owned by Towson University's Special Collections.

This is McCreary No. 220, owned by Towson University’s Special Collections.

As one of my all-time favorite writers, James Hall Bready, noted on page D4 of the February 9th 1975 edition of The Baltimore Sun, McCreary did two things to preserve Hasselbach’s book: the first, as previously mentioned, was giving it to the Garretts, who had an enormous rare-book collection and the means to maintain it. The second was publishing the reprint (pictured above), in 1903, complete with a sketch of Hasselbach’s life. Since it was a limited run of 300, copies are almost impossible to find. Bready, who owned a McCreary that he had initially purchased for $10 (presumably in the 1950s or ’60s), would have laughed off a $25 offer for it in 1975. For the record, that would be around $110 in today’s money—an offer that I would laugh off for my copy, too.

Examining The Artifact

I ventured up to Evergreen House to see the book for myself. For its age, its condition is a lot better than I would have expected. Granted, the title page is imperfect, and it has no cover—but that makes its survival all the more impressive. Bready notes that a town with less than 5,000 inhabitants probably had no bindery, which makes sense.

After more than two centuries of wear and tear, the book has finally been conserved. Now, it has a wonderful, marble, soft-cover binding, along with a protective case. Additionally, the holes in its pages have been infilled with Japanese paper. This will allow them to last for generations to come.

Examining The Artifact

As with most 18th-century publications, the subject matter is pretty dense. It centers around a fellow by the name of John Redick-Le-Man, or John Redick, layman, in the Pennsylvania back country. Redick describes, at length, his side of a financial disagreement with a blacksmith named Hugh Scot, which occurred during a trip to Lancaster. Scot thought that Redick had shortchanged him, and Redick pleads his case to the otherwise.

My favorite line is on page five, where Redick says “…as I deſign the greateſt brevity poſſible; I ſhall not ſpend the Readers Time in looking over all, or the tenth Part of what occur’d…” At which point he babbles on—for another 40 pages. Perhaps we can all agree that “brevity” was not exactly John Redick’s greatest strength! Then again, people had longer attention spans during the 18th century, when electronics were not constantly vying for their time. So, it is conceivable that, to them, 48 pages really was considered brief.

Regardless, Redick took Scot’s accusations as a personal attack. He felt strongly enough about defending his honor, that he went to the nearest printing press, which was evidently in Baltimore Town, and decided to have his side of the story made public so an “impartial” audience could hear him out. The preface to the book is dated February 12th 1765, and because there is no official arrival date for Hasselbach in Baltimore, this is the closest that we are likely to get. And celebrate we will!


Not surprisingly, Hasselbach has never really gotten his due. After his ship went under, he faded into obscurity. So much so, in fact, that on January 29th 1884, when the circa-1710 dwelling at 63 East Fayette Street was being demolished (which is a travesty in itself), The Baltimore Sun (on page 4) made the following mention of a book that had been found above a crossbeam in the attic: “[a] receipt-book, evidently the property of ‘Nicholas Hasselbach’, whoever he may have been, show[ing] receipts for various small sums of money paid to different persons by Hasselbach for tracts of land, &c., in 1769 and 1770.” It also mentioned some account books that had belonged to Hasselbach’s son-in-law, John Hillen.

Nobody knows what happened to any of those books. They were probably thrown away—carelessly discarded like the house they inhabited. The Baltimoreans of 1884 might have looked on with little more than a shrug of the shoulder. We 21st-century Baltimoreans, however—alarm bells are going off in our heads! If only we could inform them of the error in their ways. And the house… Was it Hasselbach’s house? Goodness. The thought is almost too much to bear. But, honestly, it’s the line they slid in right after his name that bugs me the most. The one that really sticks in my craw.

“…whoever he may have been…”

They didn’t even know who he was!

Can you believe that? Especially since The Baltimore Sun makes its money by way of the printing press—the technology that Hasselbach was responsible for bringing to town in the first place.

The irony is, had Hasselbach lived longer, he may have been able to stake a claim as Baltimore’s first journalist. Indirectly, though, he does have a claim. Or, at least, a partial one… Catherine Hasselbach sold her deceased husband’s printing equipment to William Goddard, who started Baltimore Town’s first newspaper. So, when The Maryland Journal, and the Baltimore Advertiser. opened up shop in 1773, it did so using Hasselbach’s types.

Thus, even in death, Hasselbach’s contribution was readily seen.

And, I suppose that I would be remiss were I not to mention his personal contribution, to me.

Because, without Nicholas Hasselbach, there’s no JGB.

Holding The Artifact