Mary Katherine Goddard – An American Printing Pioneer

Declaration of Independence broadside 1776 Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation

Early copies of the Declaration of Independence, like this July 1776 broadside in the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation collection, were printed without names.

The Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, but it would take seven months for the signers’ names to be officially acknowledged. Early copies of this treasonable document were printed without names. After the American victories at Trenton and Princeton in January 1777, however, Congress ordered an authenticated printing, complete with the signers’ names. Congress was in session in Baltimore, Maryland, at the time, and local printer Mary Katherine Goddard offered the use of her press, in spite of the risks involved in being associated with this controversial document.

Who was this woman printer, Mary Katherine Goddard? Born in 1738 to Dr. Giles Goddard, postmaster of New London, Connecticut, she was well educated by her mother, Sarah Updike Goddard. In 1762 she and her widowed mother moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where her younger brother, William, had opened a printing office, the first in the colony. Mary Katherine took a keen interest in the business of printing the Providence Gazette and worked as typesetter, printer and journalist. William traveled a great deal, so Mary Katherine and her mother became the real publishers of the paper. They added a bookbindery and printed almanacs, pamphlets and books on occasion.

At the age of 30, Mary Katherine and her mother followed William to Philadelphia to help run a new printing office and newspaper, The Pennsylvania Chronicle and Universal Advertiser. After her mother’s death in 1770, Mary Katherine kept the paper running, as William travelled and pursued other interests. An erratic man, William departed again in 1773, this time to Baltimore, and soon Mary Katherine followed. William started Baltimore’s first newspaper, The Maryland Journal and the Baltimore Advertiser, but by 1775 “M.K Goddard” was on the masthead, a sign that she was the true editor and publisher of the paper.

Mary Katherine Goddard reported the beginnings of the war at Lexington and Concord. On several occasions, she received threats and raids on her printing office from disgruntled readers trying to stifle what she printed, leading her to complain to the Baltimore Committee of Safety, which defended her right to freedom of the press.

In 1775 Mary Katherine became the first female postmaster in the United Colonies. In this position she often received and was able to publish news faster than her competitors.  Increasingly, newspapers were becoming an important vehicle for spreading ideas and reporting on the conflict with Great Britain. A conflict with her brother was the probable cause for her leaving the printing business in 1785, but she stayed on as postmaster of the Baltimore Post Office for four more years.  In 1789 Mary Katherine was forced out in favor of a male appointee. The only reason given was that she was a woman and could not handle the travel the position required. Mary Katherine appealed to Congress and to George Washington about this injustice, and more than 200 Baltimore businessmen endorsed her petition, but nothing came of it. Her later years were spent running a bookstore. Mary Katherine died in 1816 at 78, leaving behind a reputation as a sound businesswoman and pioneer in the American printing trade and postal service.

One Respons to “Mary Katherine Goddard – An American Printing Pioneer”

  1. Betsy P. Livingston February 8, 2014 Reply

    She was born in 1738 in southern New England; her exact birthplace is unknown. Like her younger brother William, she was educated by their mother, Sarah Updike Goddard, who taught them Latin, French, and the literary classics. The family was living in New London, Connecticut when Giles Goddard died in 1757, leaving a fairly valuable estate. When William came of age, they moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where Sarah Goddard lent her son the money to begin a printing business – the first in that colony.

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