Rosenbach Museum and Library shows off two copies of America’s oldest book

 The first book printed in America, The Bay Psalm Book, is on display at the Rosenbach Museum. This copy, owned by Old South Church in Boston, will be auctioned in November and could raise as much as $30 million. (Emma Lee/for NewsWorks)

The first book printed in America, The Bay Psalm Book, is on display at the Rosenbach Museum. This copy, owned by Old South Church in Boston, will be auctioned in November and could raise as much as $30 million. (Emma Lee/for NewsWorks)

Of the 1,700 copies of the very first book printed in what would become the United States, only 11 exist today. On Wednesday the Rosenbach Museum and Library was able to display two copies at the same time for a special one-day event.

The Bay Book of Psalms, as it has become known, was printed in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1640. Not only was it the first book printed in what would become the United States, it was also the first printed book authored here.

“It was important to the Puritans to have their own texts,” said Rosenbach Director Derick Dreher at Wednesday’s exhibit. “So they went back to the original Hebrew to retranslate it.”

The result is a hymnal that “sounds sort of familiar but sort of foreign all at once” to anyone familiar with other versions of the psalms, Dreher said. 

A familiar example to many comes for the 23rd Psalm. The King James version goes like this:

“He maketh me to lie down in green pastures/ He leadeth me beside the still waters./ He restoreth my soul”

But the Bay Book of Psalms translates it like this:

“He in the folds of tender grass doth cause me down to lie./To waters calm me gently leads restore my soul doth he.”

There are only 11 copies of the book left simply because they were used so often that copies “literally fell apart in people’s hands.”

“It’s a printing monument because it’s the first book printed in what’s the U.S., an authoring or writing monument because it’s the first book authored in the U.S., and a Jewish monument because it’s the first book in the Western Hemisphere to have Hebrew writing in it,” he added.

The Rosenbach has one copy of the Bay Book of Psalms that lives on its shelves year-round. The second copy of the book belongs to the Old South Church in Boston, and is being sold at auction by Sotheby’s this November. The event at the Rosenbach is the book’s first stop on a national tour.

Back in 1933, Dr. ASW Rosenbach acquired his copy from an Irish seller for 150 pounds ($750 at the time, $13,500 today). The book later broke records in 1947 when a copy sold for $151,000.

Sotheby’s has estimated the sale price for the Old South Church’s copy will be between $15 million and $30 million.

According to Sotheby Vice President for Special Projects Elizabeth Muller that’s a higher price than any Gutenberg Bible, Audubon Double Elephant Folio or Shakespeare First Folio has ever sold for.

Muller attributes the Bay Book of Psalm’s high value to its history.

“It’s an icon of American history in many different ways,” she said. “It represents an expression of freedom of speech, freedom of religion. It is an amazing survival against the injury of time, having been subject to hard and constant use by our Puritan forbearers.”

For its part, the Rosenbach is pleased with the exhibit and the visitors it brought to the museum.

Alice Emerson, the Rosenbach’s manager of external relations, said that a “great hope” for the exhibit is that “it reaches broader audiences, audiences who may not have known about the Rosenbach’s collection, or understood the origin or significance of our pieces.”

Even though the second copy of the Bay Book of Psalms was at the museum for a only day, Emerson is hopeful that it will bring in more traffic later.

“The idea of the ‘pop-up’ exhibition, highlighting one or two objects of great significance at a time in this spotlight style, is one that we feel helps people to understand just how wonderful our collection really is,” she said. They plan to have more events like this going forward.

“Our copy of the [Bay Book of Psalms] is of course here for the public to enjoy, so if this exhibition increases the number of people who are curious to see and learn more about it, we will consider it very successful.”

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