Websters, printing, and the Old Elm Tree Corner

More about Albany’s Old Elm Tree Corner, the northwest corner of State and Pearl streets, where the Livingstons had their family home for decades. The two houses immediately north of the Livingston home belonged to the Webster brothers, Charles and George.

Charles Webster and Solomon Balantine set up a printing office on Middle Lane, connecting State Street to Maiden Lane in 1782, their “printing materials consisting of as many types, as Balantine often said, as a squaw could carry in her bag,” Howell reported in his Bi-Centennial History. After a split in the partnership and a sojourn to New York, Webster returned to Albany in 1784, re-established a newspaper called the Albany Gazette, and printed the first edition of what came to be the well-known Webster’s Almanac, a collection of astronomical information, brief histories and odd stories, none too different from the modern Farmer’s Almanac. His twin brother George joined him in the business for a number of years until his death in 1821.The brothers also owned the first paper mill in northern New York, which was built in 1792 on the west side of the Poestenkill in Troy, from which they supplied their own and other publishers’ needs.

When their Middle Lane office was destroyed by fire in 1793, the Websters erected a building on the Old Elm Tree Corner, where they conducted business of bookselling, binding and printing until Charles’s death in 1832. The almanac continued to be published by Joel Munsell for many years. (The same corner had been home to Albany’s first bookstore, a pre-Revolutionary business run by a Stuart Wilson in a Dutch house.)

Charles was a well-known Federalist, and his Almanac and Gazette were widely read and known. His fame, however, was eclipsed by his second cousin, an occasional visitor to Albany and Lansingburgh (Troy) by the name of Noah Webster, whose development of a speller, grammar and reader in the 1780s made him a leader in the movement to create an American approach to education, and also made him a much sought-after speaker. Some years later, he wrote his “Compendious Dictionary of the English Language”, and 27 years after that, his “An American Dictionary of the English Language” rather finished the debate of which of the Websters would remain the best-known.

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