Lawrence Counselman Wroth (1884-1970), director of the John Carter Brown Library from 1923-1957, was the author of over 550 books, articles, journalistic pieces and other publications. His best known work, however, is The Colonial Printer, first published in 1931, republished in expanded form in 1938, and subsequently republished on three other occasions, as recently as 2003. "Still useful" is the polite phrase academics frequently use when referring to a book first published eighty years ago, but there is an old saying in the book trade that "the only thing rarer than a first edition is a second edition." It is significant, then, that the first two editions of Wroth's book appeared in the midst of the Great Depression and the most recent edition appeared in 2003, three years after the publication of the new "standard" work on the topic, The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World (2000). In 1936, R. W. G. Vail, librarian of the American Antiquarian Society and later director of the New York Historical Society, called the first edition "a perfect book" and the much revised and expanded edition of 1938 received similar acclaim. Until the publication of The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World, The Colonial Printer was the single most comprehensive treatment of all aspects of the trade, and still addresses aspects that the former leaves out. "Still useful" is inadequate to describe Wroth's contribution.
In The Colonial Printer, Wroth writes learnedly, lovingly, and at times idiosyncratically about more than 300 books. What is somewhat surprising, however, is that the book includes very few illustrations. When Wroth writes that Der Blutige Schau-Platz (Item 30) is "the largest and ugliest book produced in colonial America" or about "moralized chapbooks illustrated by hideous woodcuts" (Item 47) or "the binder who designed these harmonious combinations of flowers and leaves in gold tooling, freely and unconventionally conceived," (Item 33) one's first desire is to see the books in question. This exhibit, "The Illustrated Colonial Printer," offers a selection of the works Wroth discusses in his text. Limitations of space do not allow more than a small sampling, and the works Wroth discusses in Chapter 2, on the expansion of the press in the thirteen colonies, have been omitted entirely. At the same time, however, drawing on our rich institutional archive, the exhibit includes artifacts that illustrate the evolution of the text itself, including manuscripts, galley proofs, correspondence, etc.