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Isaiah Thomas and The Only Sure Guide to the English Tongue
Isaiah Thomas was the most important American publisher of the eighteenth century. One of the children's books springing from his presses, The Only Sure Guide to the English Tongue, or, Perry's New Pronouncing Spelling Book, is an exemplary work of children’s literature of the time. Thomas published and sold books for children, as well as books, newspapers, and magazines for adults. He was also founder of the American Antiquarian Society.
Born in Boston January 19, 1749, Isaiah Thomas was the youngest of five children. His father died young , leaving Thomas' mother, Fidelity, in difficult financial circumstances. According to Thomas, she kept a small shop to help support the family, but made the common error of selling property for continental paper money, further impoverishing her family.  Consequently, when Isaiah was six, he was indentured as an apprentice to Zechariah Fowle, a printer. Fowle left as much of the work as possible to young Isaiah. Fortunately for the child, Samuel Draper, Fowle's partner from 1758 to 1761, taught Thomas a great deal about printing. By the age of sixteen, Thomas was virtually running Fowle's shop, but after a "serious fracas" with Fowle he set off in pursuit of better training and a more attractive situation.  Ranging from Nova Scotia to Boston (and a brief reunion with Fowle) to South Carolina, his wandering returned him to Boston in 1770 with a new wife.
Shortly after the wedding, Thomas learned that his wife, Mary Dill, had borne an illegitimate child and entertained the affections of several men before marrying him. He divorced her for subsequent infidelity in 1777, and happily married Mary Thomas Fowle in 1779. After Mary's death in 1818, he married Rebecca Armstrong, but separated from her three years later. Thomas was known by some to be "a tall, attractive man, well-mannered, neat, an excellent printer, popular with his contemporaries, especially the women." Others described him as contentious, and he went through numerous business partnerships.
Nevertheless, he made his own success by a mixture of skill and good business sense. In 1770, he began printing the Massachusetts Spy, which began neutral but became a radical patriot newspaper of the American Revolution. In this regard, he upheld family tradition; his great-great-grandfather, Evan Thomas, protested customs duties and sold beer above the crown's set price. Isaiah's personal revolutionary tendencies were strong: when he worked in Nova Scotia, he crossed the royal authorities by printing criticism of the Stamp Act. Yet, ever the businessman, Thomas continued to print popular material despite the fact that the Spy had the largest circulation in New England.
From 1784 to 1802, Thomas built his Worcester-based publishing company into the largest and probably the best in America. He produced more than 900 books in his lifetime , including over 100 titles for children. At its height, the company operated sixteen presses, printing The New England Primer, various editions of the Bible, Massachusetts Magazine (one of the most highly regarded literary publications of its time), Mother Goose's Melody, and myriad other European reprints, new books, popular titles, and government documents.
One of Thomas' greatest contributions to children's literature was introducing John Newbery's books to the United States; although Thomas' loose interpretation of the copyright laws bothered Jonathan Edwards, and Newbery was never paid . Thomas acquired several Newbery chapbooks in 1779 and republished them in America. Newbery's materials were much more appealing and entertaining than other children's literature of the time. The financial success of these items led Thomas to publish his own children's titles, the first of which was The Beauty and the Monster. A Comedy. From the French of Count de Genlis. Original publications did not take over his presses, however. His first edition of Mother Goose's Melody appeared in 1785, and he also published such children's standards from England as Robinson Crusoe and Goody Two-Shoes. These children's books brought money and recognition to the business, but Thomas poured more pride and effort into his Bible publishing.
Textbooks, however, were the mainstay of Thomas' business, before and after he turned it over to his son, Isaiah Jr., in 1802. The first book for which the elder Thomas ever set print in Fowle's shop was the long established New England Primer, and this type of book suited well the reading audience of Puritan New England. Spellers increased in popularity with Noah Webster's 1783 publication, and Thomas tried to capitalize on this trend with the spellers and dictionaries of Edinburgh University professor William Perry. The Only Sure Guide to the English Tongue, or, Perry's New Pronouncing Spelling Book followed the success of these dictionaries. The first edition, typical of Thomas' influence, but published by his son in 1819, can be more properly described as a textbook than a dictionary.
Ironically, this book opens with a copyright statement signed by the Clerk of the District of Massachusetts. In keeping with the business acumen Thomas displayed in other arenas, the following pages carry an advertisement for the book itself aimed at teachers and including a quote from "the celebrated and learned Dr. Watts." Once the reader was sufficiently impressed to purchase the book, the author's preface and general preface were given, and then a "key to the work." Instruction commences with "alphabets, &c, variously arranged," and tables of phonetic syllables and short words. As the 159-page book progresses, the word lists increase in difficulty, as do the reading lessons which follow each list. Ultimately, the student would have learned esoteric four syllable words such as "animadvert" and "elecampane."
The contents of the reading lessons exemplify the writings of the Sunday School Moralists. The initial lessons consist of excerpts from the Proverbs, Beatitudes, Psalms, and Gospel Parables, woven together to form religious and moral instruction. Occasional quotes from the Old Testament pepper these readings. In contrast to the "hell-fire tales" of the Puritans, The Only Sure Guide excludes the more frightening stories and aspects of theology. Eventually, purely biblical readings give way to some contemporary religious teachings, often in imitation of biblical style. Page 65 contains the first reference to nature outside of the Bible, a natural history of swans, lions and the sun. Some of the moral lessons so epitomize the stereotypical Protestant work ethic as to sound humorous to modern ears: "Time is cash...nothing truly valuable can be acquired without labor." "Things by their right names" is a dialogue between father and son in which the boy requests a story about a "bloody murder" and his father takes the opportunity cleverly to weave a tale of a battle: "I do not know of any murders half so bloody." The relatively entertaining dialogue includes realistic interruptions and misunderstandings by the son.
After the word lists and reading lessons are hymns followed by fables. These fables are not attributed to Aesop, though they are characteristic of him. The morals, printed below the fables, are religious in tone. As might be expected from the location and time of printing, the religious influence is a curious mixture of Puritan and Deist. Each fable has a large, elaborate half-page illustration. Rules of etiquette, advice to a young man upon his introduction to the world, a glossary of printing terms, an appendix describing the geography of America and other miscellaneous facts, and a very brief list of definitions rounds out the instructional material. The final page displays an ad for various schoolbooks available from the Thomas presses. Thus, The Only Sure Guide is not only characteristic of the Sunday School Moralists' penchant for teaching theology and morals alongside literacy, but also of Isaiah Thomas' inclination to turn a profit.
Encyclopedia Britannica, 1994 ed. S.v. "Isaiah Thomas."
Garraty, John A. and Mark C. Carnes. eds. American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. S.v. "Isaiah Thomas," by Richard F. Hixson.
Perry, William. The Only Sure Guide to the English Tongue, or, Perry's New Pronouncing Spelling Book. Boston: Isaiah Thomas, 1819.
Tebbel, John. A History of Publishing in the United States, Volume 1: The Creation of an Industry. New York: R.R.Bowker, 1972.
Thomas, Isaiah. The History of Printing in America: with a Biography of Printers & an Account of Newspapers. ed. Marcus A. McCorison. Barre, Mass.: Imprint Society, 1970.
Townsend, John Rowe. Written for Children: An Outline of English Language Children's Literature. 6th ed. Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press, 1996.
 Isaiah Thomas. The History of Printing in America: with a biography of printers & an account of newspapers, ed. Marcus A. McCorison (Barre, Mass.: Imprint Society, 1970), 154-5.
Isaiah Thomas (1749-183l)
Notes from the Special Collections: Collectors and Donors--Their Importance to the Dartmouth Library
Isaiah Thomas Paintings by D. W. Roth
A Curious Hieroglyphick Bible
Newbery, John, Isaiah Thomas, and William Henry Whitmore. The Original Mother Goose's Melody: As First Issued by John Newbery, of London, About A.D.,1760. Albany: J. Munsell's Sons, 1889.
398.8 M93or 1889
Thomas, Isaiah. The History of Printing in America, With a Biography of Printers and an Account of Newspapers. Barre, Mass: Imprint Society, 1970.
Z205 .T56 1970
Thomas, Isaiah, and Benjamin Franklin Thomas. The History of Printing in America, With a Biography of Printers, and an Account of Newspapers. Albany, N. Y.: J. Munsell, printer, 1874.
Z208 .T45 1874
Thomas, Isaiah, William Shakespeare, and Oliver Goldsmith. Mother Goose's Melody, or, Sonnets for the Cradle: In Two Parts : Part I Contains the Most Celebrated Songs and Lullabies of the Good Old Nurses, Calculated to Amuse Children and to Excite Them to Sleep : Part II: Those of That Sweet Songster and Nurse of Wit and Humour, Master William Shakespeare : Embellished with Cuts, and Illustrated with Notes and Maxims, Historical, Philosophical, and Critical. Worcester (Massachusetts): Printed by Isaiah Thomas, and sold at his bookstore, 1794.
d 398.8 M93mmel 1794a
d PZ8.3 .M85 1945x Min.
Thomas, Isaiah, and Zechariah Fowle. The Massachusetts Spy. Boston [Mass.]: Zechariah Fowle, Isaiah Thomas, 1770.
PN4897 M38M38 (Library has v.5:no.219 (1975))