Georgetown 250: A View from the Hilltop

Howard W. Gunlocke Rare Book and Special Collections Room



The Georgetown community is currently celebrating its 250th anniversary, dating from an act of the Maryland legislature passed in May, 1751, providing for laying out and establishing the town. Thus the university, which dates its establishment to 1789, shares almost the entirety of the town’s history, and an exhibit running in the Gunlocke Special Collections Room through the end of April looks at the community’s history as it is reflected in the university’s rare book, manuscript, and art collections.

Georgetown’s literary lions, ranging from Francis Scott Key to E. D. E. N. Southworth to Larry McMurtry to William Peter Blatty are all represented, Key by a handwritten manuscript of his only well-known poem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Blatty by a typed filmscript for the most famous of Georgetown movies, “The Exorcist.” Photographs showing various aspects of Georgetown in the late 19th and 20th centuries are supplemented by such intriguing records as those of a Georgetown mayor from the 1850s and a manuscript deed for the land on 35th Street on which the Alexander Graham Bell house stands. The exhibit is completed by a selection of early Georgetown imprints (some of which were certainly inspired, if not written, by faculty at the nascent college), and examples of the work of the unknown “Georgetown binder,” one of the finest practitioners of bookbinding in America at the beginning of the 19th century, who did work for Thomas Jefferson among many others.

Early Georgetown Imprints in the Exhibition:

Thayer, John, 1755-1815

Controversy between The Reverend John Thayer, Catholic Missionary, of Boston, and The Reverend George Lesslie, Pastor of a Church, in Washington, New-Hampshire. George-Town: [Patowmack] Printed by Alexander Doyle, 1791.

 A very early, if not the first, book printed in Georgetown, undoubtedly at the instigation of the ex-Jesuits involved in the creation of the college.

The Pious Guide to Prayer and Devotion, 1792

The Pious Guide to Prayer and Devotion. Containing Various Practices of Piety Calculated to Answer the Various Demands of the Different Devout Members of the Roman Catholic Church. . . . Permissu Superiorum. George-Town: (Potowmack) Printed by James Doyle, 1792.

The first edition of a long-popular American Catholic devotional work, possibly arranged by one or more members of the Georgetown faculty. Added to the college library before 1836.

Ordinances of the Corporation of Georgetown

Ordinances of the Corporation of Georgetown: to which are prefixed, the Law for Laying Out the Town, the Original and Supplementary Charters, and Such Other Laws of Maryland and the United States, As immediately relate to the Town. Georgetown, Ca: Printed by W. A. Rind, 1811.

The first printing of Georgetown’s ordinances, originally authorized in 1809, this copy in the original paper boards priced at $1.00 on publication.

The Pious Guide to Prayer and Devotion, 1815

The Pious Guide to Prayer and Devotion. Containing Various Practices of Piety, Calculated to Answer the Demands of the Devout Members of the Roman Catholic Church. The Third Edition, Revised and Augmented. . . . Georgetown, D.C.: Published by Joseph Milligan. W. A. Rind and Co. Printers, 1815.

Actually the fourth edition, following reprints elsewhere in 1808 and Georgetown in 1812. Gift of Miss Fannie Fennell, 1891.

The New Testament of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ

The New Testament of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, Translated out of the Latin Vulgate . . . . Georgetown, D.C.: Printed by W. Duffy, Book-Seller and Stationer, 1817.

The first Georgetown printing of any part of the Bible; this is one of very few copies still in its original binding of paper boards, uncut. From the library of John Gilmary Shea.

The Pious Guide to Prayer and Devotion, 1819

The Pious Guide to Prayer and Devotion: Containing Various Practices of Piety, Calculated to Answer the Demands of the Devout Members of the Roman Catholic Church. The fourth edition, revised and augmented. . . . Georgetown, D.C.: Published by Elijah Weems, 1819.

Actually the sixth edition, following another published elsewhere in 1817. Like all editions of early American Catholic devotional works, this one is rare, the present copy being the only one recorded in an American library.

Ricardo, David, 1772-1823

On the Principles of Political Economy, and Taxation. . . . First American Edition. Georgetown, D.C.: Published by Joseph Milligan. Jacob Gideon, Junior, Printer, Washington City, 1819.

One of a number of substantial works on political science and economy issued by Milligan, who also published works by Malthus and Destutt de Tracy.

Alvares, Manuel, 1526-1583

Prosodia sive institutionum linguæ Latinæ liber quartus. In usum Studiosorum Societatis Jesu. Permissu Superiorum. Georgiopoli, D.C.: Typis Samuelis S. Rind, 1831.

The first American printing of a standard Jesuit textbook, intended specifically for use at Georgetown. Alvares’ Prosodia, originally written in the 16th century, continued in use at the college at least up to the period of the Civil War.

Johnson, Samuel, 1709-1784

A Dictionary of the English Language: in which the Words are deduced from their Originals, and Illustrated in their Different Significations by Examples from the best Writers. . . . In Two Volumes. London: Printed by W. Strahan, For J. and P. Knapton; T. and T. Longman; C. Hitch and L. Hawes; A. Millar; and R. and J. Dodsley, 1755.

One of the most impressive surviving examples of the work of the “Georgetown binder,” the size and weight of the volumes making their survival in relatively good condition remarkable in the extreme.

Thomson, James, 1700-1748

The Seasons; with The Castle of Indolence. Poems . . . . Georgetown (D. of C.): Published by Richards and Mallory, William Fry, Printer, 1814.

Unusually, a locally-printed book finished by the “Georgetown binder” which did not emanate from the printing establishment of Joseph Milligan. Gift of Willis Van Devanter, 2000.

Destutt de Tracy, Antoine Louis Claude, Comte, 1754-1836

A Treatise on Political Economy; to which is prefixed a Supplement to a Preceding Work on the Understanding, or Elements of Ideology; with an Analytical Table, and an Introduction on the Faculty of the Will. . . . Translated from the Unpublished French Original. Georgetown, D.C.: Published by Joseph Milligan. W. A. Rind & Co. Printers, 1817.

One of the books most frequently found in a binding by the “Georgetown binder,” this copy being a miracle of survival, lasting more than 150 years in the Georgetown stacks unread, and therefore unharmed. Added to the college library before 1836.

The First Edition of a Hymnal

Das Gemeinschaftliche Gesangbuch, zum gottesdienstlichen Gebrauch der Lutherischen und Reformirten Gemeinden in Nord-America. . . . Erste Auflage. Baltimore: Gedruckt und herausgegeben von Schäffer und Maund, 1817.

The first edition of a hymnal dating from a brief early period of accord between Lutheran and Reformed German-speaking churches in America. A typical production of the “Georgetown binder,” with the name of its first owner, George Uhler, stamped in gilt on the upper board.

A Note on the “Georgetown Binder”

The names John March and Joseph Milligan are frequently associated with this unidentified craftsman (or director of this unknown shop) who bound a number of volumes for the library of Thomas Jefferson as well as for local citizens. The four works shown are typical of his style: artificially patterned calf boards, relatively simple decorations on the covers, fairly heavily gilded spines. Some time later in the century some of his tools came into the possession of the college bindery, where they were still in use early in the 20th century when the bindery operation was given up.

Early Printing in Georgetown

While Georgetown was by no means a center of printing and publishing, a fair number of significant texts were produced here before Washington co-opted the printing business almost entirely. The first four items show another peculiarity, namely the course of Georgetown’s self-identification: from near the “Patowmack” to near the “Potowmack,” from “Columbia” (the source of the enigmatic abbreviation “Ca.”) to, by 1815, the plain “D.C.” familiar today.