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Elizabeth Timothy America’s First Female Publisher

Although in the 1730s the American colonies were still solidly part of the British Empire, there were hints that Americans were at times beginning to rise to the occasion of necessity without regard to British precedents. One such case involved a Charleston, South Carolina woman who took on a task that made it clear that women had abilities beyond the accepted norms of the day. On January 4, 1739 Elizabeth Timothy published the regular weekly issue of the South Carolina Gazette making her the first woman in America to publish a newspaper.

Her remarkable story started in Amsterdam, the Netherlands where she was born Elizabet Ann Villin on June 30, 1702 to Protestant Dutch parents Claude and Elizabet Villin. She was given a good education, especially in accounting and bookkeeping which proved to be very important later in her life. The circumstances in Europe leading her to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and on to Charleston, South Carolina go back many years before her birth.

In the decades following Martin Luther’s break from the Roman Catholic Church in 1520, the nation of France, like other European nations, was embroiled in a bitter struggle between Protestants and Roman Catholics, with Catholicism being the majority religion in France at that time. One sect of French Protestants, who came to be known as Huguenots, living mainly in the southern and western parts of France, were followers of John Calvin, a Swiss Protestant whose theology differed slightly from that of Martin Luther, especially on the doctrine of predestination. 

By the 1560s the religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants had become intense to the point that at least two groups of French Protestants, mostly Huguenots, had attempted to establish settlements in America where they could practice their religion free from Catholic persecution. Both American Huguenot settlements failed. The first, founded by Jean Ribault in 1562 on what is now Parris Island in South Carolina, was abandoned after a year. The second, established near present day Jacksonville, Florida in 1565 was completely destroyed by Spanish Catholic troops under Admiral Pedro Menendez de Aviles. Most of its inhabitants were either killed or taken captive.

In 1598 the Edict of Nantes gave French Huguenots a modicum of religious and political freedom for nearly a century. However, Louis XIV, a staunch Roman Catholic, who became king of France in 1643, grew to resent the fact that the Edict gave so much freedom to Protestants. In 1685 he revoked the Edict believing that most Protestants would agree to become Catholics. Some did, but thousands did not. It was estimated that in the next few decades, over 200,000 Huguenots left France. A good many of them sought refuge in the Netherlands, a nation which gave them, and other religious groups, the freedom to worship as they wished.

Among the many French families involved in this migration was the Timothee family who came to the Netherlands in the late 1690s. There Monsieur Timothee set up a printing shop and taught the skill to his young son, Louis, who had been born in the Netherlands in 1699. Louis Timothee was a precocious fellow who not only learned printing and publishing, but who also loved books and languages, and in time became fluent in English, German and French, along with his native Dutch.

Around 1720 Louis met Elizabet Villin, and in July 1722 they married. After living 9 years in the Netherlands, the couple, now with 4 young children, emigrated with other Huguenots from Rotterdam to Philadelphia, arriving there on September 21, 1731. As required of all male immigrants to British America at that time, Louis took the Oath of Allegiance to King George II. Before long he and Elizabet anglicized their names to Lewis and Elizabeth Timothy.

To earn a living, Lewis decided to teach French classes and ran an advertisement in Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette that stated that he was opening a “Publick French School; he will also, if required, teach the said language to any young gentlemen or ladies at their Lodgings.” Through advertising in the Gazette, he met Franklin who was impressed with Timothy’s knowledge of languages, books and printing. So, needing a part time librarian for the Library Company of Philadelphia that Franklin and some acquaintances had founded in July 1731, Franklin offered Timothy a position at the library which Timothy accepted, making him America’s first paid librarian.

By this time the entrepreneurial Franklin had done so well with the Pennsylvania Gazette that he was beginning to establish other newspapers in some of the larger cities in the American colonies. The arrangement he offered was set up on a six-year franchise basis where he provided the printing press and one third of the needed equipment such as paper, ink, and “four hundred-weight of letters” and in turn he received one third of the profits. Then after six years the operator would be allowed to purchase the business for himself.  One of these franchise arrangements had been made with Thomas Whitmarsh in 1730 to publish the South Carolina Gazette in Charleston, South Carolina.

Whitmarsh published the first edition of the Gazette on January 8, 1731, making it the 8th newspaper established in America. The Gazette became popular and did well financially, but Whitmarsh, who Franklin described as “an excellent workman” died in September 1733. Franklin, needing a printer, asked his journeyman printer and librarian Lewis Timothy if he would like to take over the Charleston publishing operation. Lewis agreed, and in November 1733 moved to Charleston and became publisher of the Gazette. He set up his operation in a house located at 97 King Street which is still standing and at this time is occupied as a private residence.  Timothy issued his first newspaper on January 26, 1734. A few months later, after settling accounts in Philadelphia and overseeing the shipment of the family goods, Lewis’s wife, Elizabeth, now with six young children, moved to Charleston to join her husband.  Packing up a household of furniture and moving to a new home in a new city with six young children in tow, showed that she must have had great organizational skills.

Under Timothy, the South Carolina Gazette published advertisements, local news, and news from England, which at that time many people, both native-born and immigrants, still considered their home country. But even in light of the close affiliation with Britain, a good deal of the news at that time reflected the growing attitude of many colonists to establish an American cultural identity while remaining politically and economically tied to British rule.

One of the interesting controversies of the day, that no doubt, Lewis Timothy and many other American newspaper publishers covered, was the trial in 1735 of John Peter Zenger, publisher of the New York Weekly Journal. Zenger had been arrested for printing articles critical of the New York royal colonial governor, William Cosby. After being imprisoned for 8 months while awaiting trial, Zenger was in the end found not guilty of libel, which surely pleased Timothy and many other colonial publishers, including Benjamin Franklin.

It turned out that the trial was an important milestone in American history, setting three important precedents. One was that it established a basis for freedom of speech and of the press in America that became the impetus behind part of the first amendment to the US constitution. It was also an early example of Americans voicing dissatisfaction with the British rules of law governing the colonies, a viewpoint which in forty years would lead to the American Revolution. Another important precedent that has had implications in numerous trials since the Zenger verdict, was that it helped establish the legal doctrine that truth is a defense against libel, that is, a statement, even if ‘defamatory’, is not libelous if it is proved to be true. It is interesting that a few years later in his writings, Benjamin Franklin described Zenger’s lawyer, Andrew Hamilton, who lived in Philadelphia, as a ‘brilliant lawyer’.

Although Franklin considered Lewis Timothy a learned scholar and good publisher, he was not pleased with Lewis’s poor accounting skills. Timothy was supposed to send detailed reports to Franklin quarterly, but this was not always done to Franklin’s satisfaction. Nevertheless, the newspaper did well and established a good reputation in the southern colonies such that Timothy became the official printer for the government of South Carolina, which at that time was located in Charleston.

Apparently, news of the quality of Timothy’s work had spread into Georgia for in 1736, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, who at that time was a young Anglican clergyman, came up from Savannah to have Timothy print his first Collection of Psalms and Hymns. This was the first Anglican hymnal published in America, and was important enough in the history of the United Methodist Church that a Methodist Church Historical Plaque was placed at the site of Timothy’s printing shop. The book, now in its 7th edition, can still be purchased.

Lewis ran the newspaper until he died of an ‘unhappy accident’ in December 1738. The nature of the accident is unknown, although some historians believe he died of yellow fever, a disease spread by mosquitos, which was rampant in the South Carolina low country at the time. In light of her great loss, Elizabeth could have sold the business or turned the franchise back over to Benjamin Franklin. But the resolute woman did not hesitate to continue the work of her husband. In the January 4, 1739 issue of the Gazette Elizabeth wrote:

Whereas the late printer of the Gazette hath been deprived of his life by an unhappy accident, I take this opportunity of informing the public that I will continue the said paper as usual, and I hope by the assistance of my friends to make it as entertaining and correct as may be reasonably expected.

Wherefore, I flatter myself that all those persons, who by subscription or otherwise who assisted my late husband, on the persecution of the said undertaking, will be kindly pleased to continue their favors and good offices to his poor afflicted widow and six small children and another expected hourly.

By this announcement, Elizabeth Ann Timothy, at the age of 37, became the first woman in America to become a newspaper publisher. Since she also took over the franchise arrangement her husband had made with Benjamin Franklin, she also became the first woman in America to hold a franchise. She was ahead of her time to take on these responsibilities. However, as was the custom of the day, it was not proper for a woman to enter a profession as complex as publishing, so the masthead of the paper had to read “Printed by Peter Timothy”, who was Elizabeth’s 14-year-old son. Elizabeth, undaunted by this example of 18th century societal norms, kept the newspaper going as a successful enterprise..

Unfortunately, the child that Elizabeth “expected hourly” died at childbirth. Also, later in 1739, two of her sons died of yellow fever. Within a year she had lost her husband and three children. She persevered through this period of grief. She was apparently a good mother to her four remaining children while producing a newspaper of high quality.

Under Elizabeth the four-page paper, which contained a combination of literature, advertisements, and news, both local and from Europe, continued to be profitable and she was also able to remain the printer for the colony of South Carolina printing laws, bank notes, and other official documents. To Franklin’s delight, Elizabeth proved to be much more adept at keeping good account of expenditures and profit than her late husband. Franklin later wrote of her:

“She not only sent me as clear a state as she could find of the transactions past, but continued to account with greatest regularity and exactness to every quarter afterwards. She managed the business with such success that she not only brought up respectably a family of children but she was able to purchase of me the printing house and establish her son in it.”

Franklin attributed at least part of her success to the fact that she had been “born and bred in Holland where knowledge of accounts was part of female education.” She did so well, that by December 1739 she was able to buy out Franklin’s share of the business becoming sole owner of the newspaper and printing business while at the same time successfully raising her children and grooming her teenaged son, Peter, to officially take over the business when he turned 21.

Although their business relationship ended, Elizabeth and her family remained good friends with Franklin. In fact, a few years later when Peter married and had children, he named one of his sons Benjamin Franklin Timothy.

The years of Elizabeth’s tenure as publisher of the Gazette were eventful in South Carolina. No doubt in September 1739 she covered the news of the slave uprising called the Stono Rebellion in which several people, black and white, were killed. That bloody rebellion, coming only 8 years after the Nat Turner rebellion in Virginia in 1831, resulted in several laws being passed that greatly restricted the activities of African slaves.

On November 18, 1740 a large fire destroyed 300 homes and several commercial buildings in Charleston. Through the turmoil, Elizabeth kept the Gazette going, informing people of the extent of the damage in the city and admonishing people who had taken items from damaged buildings to return them to their owners.

On a lighter note, in the early 1740s when Eliza Lucas – who later married Charles Pinckney — perfected the growing and processing of indigo dye at her Wappoo Plantation, Elizabeth published an article entitled “Instructions on the Cultivation of Indigo.”, which helped spread the good news that money could be made from this crop. It turned out that this deep blue dye became very popular in Europe and many South Carolina planters became wealthy growing it and exporting it.

Elizabeth ran the printing and publishing house until 1746 when Peter turned 21. She then turned the business over to him and set up a store next door to the printing shop where she sold stationary, ink, quills, tallow, beer, flour, and a variety of books including, of course, Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack. She ran the store for about a year then took a year off and traveled, not leaving much information about where she went. Perhaps this was her version of a restful sabbatical.

She returned to Charleston and apparently lived comfortably for the next few years, advising her son Peter when necessary, and acquiring several properties around Charleston. Early in 1757 she became ill and in April of that year died at the age of 55 shortly after writing her will. She was buried at St. Philips Anglican Church in Charleston.

Of her seven children, one died shortly after birth, two sons died in 1739 of yellow fever, and four survived to adulthood. In her will she left to her daughter Mary Elizabeth Bourquin, who was already widowed, a small tract of land, a house on King Street, two slaves, and half her clothing and furniture. To each of her other two married daughters, Catherine Trezevant and Louisa Richards, she left each a house, 3 slaves, and the remainder of her estate. Peter, the only surviving son, by that time was well established in the printing and publishing enterprise. The amount of property and slaves she left in her will indicated that she must have done quite well financially.

The good work she did as publisher of the South Carolina Gazette did not go unnoticed. For one thing she set a good precedent for other women to go into publishing, and by the late 1700s, approximately 16 of the 78 small, family-owned weekly newspapers circulating throughout America were published by women. Over the years, Benjamin Franklin had reprinted several of Mrs. Timothy’s articles in his Pennsylvania Gazette, and Edward Cave, publisher of The Gentleman’s Magazine in London, used the South Carolina Gazette as one of his primary sources of news from the colonies.

In 1973, over 200 years after her death, Elizabeth was inducted into the South Carolina Press Association Hall of Fame. On February 28, 1975, a marker in her memory was placed at Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site by the Women’s Division of the South Carolina Press Association as part of the 100th anniversary of the association. Then in 2000, she was inducted into the South Carolina Business Hall of Fame.

Peter Timothy also proved to be an astute publisher, business owner, and productive citizen. He kept the Gazette profitable, remained as official printer for the colony, and in 1748 became one of the founders of the Charleston Library Society. Today the Society is one of the oldest cultural institutions in the south and the third oldest subscription library in America behind libraries in Philadelphia and Rhode Island. In 1755 Peter was elected to the South Carolina Commons House of Assembly. And in 1756 he was made the postmaster of Charleston.

In the years leading to the Revolutionary War, Peter wrote articles against the Stamp Act and other British laws he felt were unfair to American colonists. In 1776 he printed copies of the Declaration of Independence and distributed them around Charleston.

When Charleston fell to the British army in 1780, Peter was arrested for his pro-independence views and sent to Fort Mark prison in St. Augustine, Florida. He refused to take the British oath of loyalty, but after 10 months in prison he was exchanged and given permission to travel to Philadelphia to visit relatives there. He was forbidden to return to Charleston. In late 1782 Peter and two of his daughters set sail from Philadelphia to Antigua to visit another daughter who was living there. Unfortunately, they encountered a strong storm and all were drowned.

After Peter’s death, his wife, Ann Donovan Timothy, who he had married in December 1745, took over the publication of the Gazette just as her mother-in-law had done 43 years earlier. She ran it for the next ten years until her son, Benjamin Franklin Timothy, turned 21 in 1792. Benjamin became owner of the Gazette and ran it until 1803 when he sold it to Aaron Smith Willington who had moved to Charleston from Massachusetts and started a daily newspaper called the Charleston Courier. This newspaper grew into today’s Charleston Post and Courier carrying on Lewis and Elizabeth’s newspaper legacy.

After 72 years starting with Thomas Whitmarsh and five different Timothy family members, Indian wars, slave uprisings, a devastating fire, yellow fever and small-pox epidemics, and the American Revolution, the South Carolina Gazette ceased publication.

One comment

  1. Fascinating account of newspapers and journalism in South Carolina’s pre and post Revolutionary period. Covers well the dedication and determination of the Timothys to keep the Gazette in operation, as it continued to be influential and profitable.

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