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The history of colonial printing comes to life in the North End

Posted by Jeremy C. Fox  August 2, 2011 08:42 AM

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(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)

Historian Gary Gregory shows visitors to the Printing Offices of Edes & Gill a copper plate like the one Paul Revere used to create his famous etching of the Boston Massacre.

By Jeremy C. Fox, Town Correspondent

As groups of visitors paused in a historic home along the Freedom Trail on a recent afternoon, historian Gary Gregory showed them a reproduction of Paul Revere’s famous etching of the Boston Massacre.

Gregory described the the tensions that led up to the conflict, the methods Revere used to create the etching, and his reasons for adding drama to the drawing by Henry Pelham that served as his source material.

“It takes Paul Revere about a week to engrave this — 50, 60 hours,” Gregory said. “He’s going to come out with it three weeks after the shooting happens. And it becomes etched in our minds that the British soldiers were actually lined up being given the order to fire on us, when in fact that wasn’t the case. And it shows a very innocent group of people over here being mowed down in the streets. Not exactly what happens.”

Gregory offers this corrective view of history as part of the daily routine he began this spring at a new exhibit meant to give visitors to the city a look into its long tradition of journalism — and propaganda. The sign outside this room just around the corner from the Old North Church reads “The Printing Offices of Edes & Gill,” and inside Gregory offers his best approximation of that historic colonial print shop.

Benjamin Edes and John Gill were the publishers of the Boston Gazette between 1755 and 1775, with Edes continuing for about another 20 years after the dissolution of their partnership. In their hands, the weekly newspaper was an important element in fomenting the American Revolution.

The recreated print shop is a collaboration between the Old North Foundation, which owns this building, and Lessons on Liberty, a nonprofit organization founded by Gregory that offers Freedom Trail tours. To prepare to run it, Gregory learned from master printers at Colonial Williamsburg and acquired two printing presses.

The larger press, which Gregory uses for demonstrations, is a reproduction of an English common press made for Colonial Williamsburg in 1949. The other, which is too delicate to use, was built between 1730 and 1750 and is one of four in the world that survive from that era.

Ed Pignone, executive director of the Old North Foundation, said he thought 2011 was a particularly interesting time to be looking back at the technology and ideology behind the nation’s earliest media outlets.

“We’re in a period where the way news is collected, reported, and distributed is just radically evolving, changing dynamically,” Pignone said. “And I think it’s fascinating to present to our visitors the way news was reported and disseminated on the eve of revolution. And obviously, it worked.”

Though Edes and Gill’s actual office was about a half-mile away, on Court Street in a building long since destroyed, the Unity Street building where the print shop has been recreated has a long history of its own.

Built by Ebenezer Clough around 1712, the Clough House is believed to be the second oldest brick residence in Boston, behind only the Pierce-Hichborn House in North Square, erected about a year earlier. Clough was among the master masons later responsible for building the Old North Church and five more row houses on Unity Street identical to this one, including the one next door once owned by Benjamin Franklin and inhabited by his two sisters.

This home, in which Clough himself lived, is the only one that remains. Some were demolished by the Works Progress Administration in 1938 to make way for the Paul Revere Mall. This one, too, was slated for demolition as part of the city’s urban renewal efforts before the Old North Foundation purchased it from the city in 1962. With help from the General Federation of Women’s Clubs of Massachusetts, the foundation raised money to restore the home and open it to the public.

Pam Bennett, retail manager for the Old North Foundation, said that currently the church’s sexton lives on the top floor, but in recent years the lower floors have been little used. Introducing the print shop was a way to make better use of the space while adding an additional educational experience for visitors to the church and the Paul Revere Mall.

“It was really underutilized, so we decided to make something to complete our campus, and this is what we came up with,” said Bennett. “It’s the first new thing on the Freedom Trail in a very, very long time, so we’re very, very excited about it.”

For more information about the Printing Office of Edes & Gill, visit http://bostongazette.org/.

Email Jeremy C. Fox at jeremycfox@gmail.com.

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