Harvard displays rare and valuable copy of 1640 ‘Bay Psalm Book’

tags: Harvard University




The evening of Jan. 24, 1764, was blustery in Cambridge, with a light snow falling. Someone left a fire burning in the library fireplace at Harvard Hall, a two-story wooden structure then nearly 100 years old. Unattended, the flames soon spread and ate through the floor beams, set the building alight and burning it to the ground.

Destroyed along with Harvard’s scientific instruments were about 5,000 books. But 500 volumes out on loan or not yet shelved were saved.

The loss of the library was a disaster. In the 18th century, books were still expensive and rare. But following news of the fire, thousands of volumes poured into Harvard from benefactors. Among the donated texts was a first printing of the “The Whole Booke of Psalmes,” English America’s first book, published in 1640 on a printing press near Harvard that was imported from England in 1638, and was itself the first in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Today, copies of the volume known as the “Bay Psalm Book” — translations from the Hebrew, and meant to be sung — are very rare, with only 11 remaining of the 1,700 printed in the first edition. By comparison, there are something like 200 copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio and 49 copies of the 1455 Gutenberg Bible, which was the first book printed using moveable type....



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