The original engraved copper plate for printing the Armorial bearings of the States of Massachusetts and New York, prepared by James Trenchard to illustrate the October 1787 issue of The Columbian Magazine. A unique and important artefact of early American printing history.
The plate combines the arms of Massachusetts and New York. The two make an interesting contrast. The former was adopted in 1780 and features an armed native American warrior, holding an arrow facing downward to signify peace. Above his head is a bent arm holding a raised broadsword, and the whole is wrapped in a swag bearing a Latin motto translating literally to “By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty.” The intensely local and rather backward-looking themes of the Massachusetts arms contrast with the more abstract and outward-looking arms of New York. These include a central scene of mountains towering above the Hudson River, flanked by the figures of Liberty and Justice and surmounted by an American eagle spreading its wings over the world.
Updated versions of both states’ arms remain in use today, though that of Massachusetts is not long for this world. The imagery and motto have become controversial, and in January 2021 Governor Baker signed into being a commission tasked with resdesigning the arms
The plate was acquired together with the printing plate for a view of Boston from the harbour, used in the December 1787 issue of the same magazine. Together they are among the earliest surviving American copper printing plates I have encountered in trade, with the plate apparently still in serviceable condition. Early American printing plates, of any subject, are very rarely encountered on the market, and I cannot recall having seen another from the 18th century. Copper, being a soft metal, was easily damaged by careless handling or in storage, and the value of the metal itself meant the plates were generally recycled: the image was either burnished away and the plate re-engraved, or the plate melted down so the metal could be reused.
The Columbian Magazine
The Columbian Magazine, or monthly miscellany containing a view of the History, Literature, Manners & Characters of the year, was first published in 1786 by a consortium of leading Philadelphia bookmen and publishers, including William Spotswood, Charles Cist, Mathew Carey and James Trenchard.
The original subscription price was twenty shilling per annum, for which the publishers delivered thirteen numbers. An important element was engraved illustrations, generally two per issue, with Trenchard as the house engraver. This was a costly commitment, but the original print-run was an impressive 1,500 per issue, with demand seeing this increase to two thousand per issue, giving it the largest circulation of any American periodical of its day.
Unfortunately for the consortium, Carey left to found a rival publication, the American Museum. The other partners drifted away, finally leaving only Trenchard, and the magazine folded in 1792.
Trenchard (1747-1798?) was active in Philadelphia from about 1777, as an engraver, seal-cutter and die-sinker. He was probably trained by James Smither and in turn trained James Thackara, and all three are well known today for their map work. His son Edward C. Trenchard advertised as a map-engraver. Trenchard’s later career is mysterious. He abandoned his wife – she had to sue for divorce – possibly emigrating to England in about 1793, but was recorded in court papers in Philadelphia in 1797 and died shortly after, either in Philadelphia or England.
His most important work was the single sheet version of the Reading Howell map of Pennsylvania 1791, but he is thought to have engraved most of the maps and plates for The Columbian Magazine, including maps of the “Annual Passage of the Herrings” (a Gulf Stream map), Pennsylvania and a map of the seat of war around Boston. He also engraved portraits, landscapes and decorative images, as here.
Provenance and references
This printing plate was previously in the hands of the Rosenbach Company, the most important of the American rare book dealers from the first half of the 20th century. It is housed in an early paper sleeve with manuscript title, inserted into a Rosenbach manila envelope, and accompanied by a 20th-century strike of the plate on wove paper. These are accompanied by a photocopy of a typed list of plates issued in the The Columbian Magazine. The list suggests that at one time that Rosenbach had acquired some or all of the plates from the Magazine.
Stauffer, American Engravers, #3280. For a history of The Columbian Magazine, see Mott, A History of American Magazines 1741-1850, pp. 92-99.
Offered in partnership with James Arsenault & Company and The Old Print Shop.