Spurius Press

Chicago Ephemera

Robert Wiebking

John Calhoun

Letter G

John C. Calhoun
First Printer in Chicago, Illinois

     The first printing in Chicago took place on November 13, 1833, by John Calhoun, a printer who had come from Watertown, New York where he had been publishing a paper, the Watertown Eagle. Calhoun was born in 1808 in Watertown. His parents came from Connecticut, his father a carpenter, which avocation John followed as a young man. At the age of 16 he entered the printing office of W. Woodward, owner of the Watertown Freeman newspaper. At age 21 he went to Albany, New York to work for Starr & Little Typefoundry, then to Troy, New York where he worked on the city directory. He returned to Watertown, to the Freeman, and in 1831, in partnership with Woodward, bought equipment for a job printing shop. Woodward sold the newspaper shortly after for political reasons, leaving Calhoun out in the cold. So Calhoun bought more printing equipment to start the Watertown Eagle.
      Late in 1833, a friend of Calhoun’s, Harlow Kimball, returned from a trip to Chicago and urged Calhoun to set up a printing shop there. Kimball was convinced that Chicago was going to grow even though Midwest river towns like Louisville were already much larger communities. Chicago had been little more than a village up until then without many residents. The area was swampy and without the cheap transportation afforded by river boats, not much commerce. The main population for many years were trappers who were scattered about the region collecting beaver pelts. The first marriage in what became Chicago was 1825 when the local Post Master married the daughter of the local Indian chief. Members of the brides party came armed.
      On September 21, 1833, having crated and shipped his printing equipment, a Washington handpress and some type, in the care of his two apprentices, Calhoun boarded a steamboat in Buffalo, bound for Detroit. The ship encountered a hurricane in Lake Erie and ran aground, leaving Calhoun and the other passengers to walk twenty miles to Huron, there to board another boat to Detroit. From Detroit he took a stagecoach the rest of the distance to Chicago. Upon his arrival he found all his equipment and his two apprentices waiting for him, staying at Ingersoll’s “Traveler’s Home.” He rented some office space at South Water and Clark street, which is now a chic restaurant district, and installed his equipment and set up shop.
    The first job he printed was a lot of business cards for Mr. Ingersoll, evidently in payment of the apprentices’ bill. Copies of the cards have not survived. He followed that with the first newspaper in the city, the Chicago Democrat, a four page, six column paper, 15” by 20” in size. In December he received his second printing job, vouchers for a Col. F. J. V. Owen. This was followed by numerous printing jobs for advertising materials, business cards, mortgage forms, legal forms, broadsides, and tickets.
      In the spring of 1834 Mrs. Calhoun, the former Pamela C. Hathaway, who Calhoun had married in May of 1832, arrived from Watertown and began working in the office as proofreader and office manager. There were two employees, a Mr. Beckford and a Mr. Pratt, who also worked for Calhoun. Whether Beckford and Pratt were the two apprentices from Watertown is not known.
     The Democrat was designated the official paper of the City of Chicago and on May 9, 1834 Calhoun printed the papers of incorporation of the city. The newspaper was successful enough that they moved in November of

that year to larger second-floor offices to above the Jones & King hardware a few doors from the old office. During the winter Calhoun had problems with paper delivery since his last shipment failed to arrive before Lake Michigan was closed by ice. The diminishing paper supply closed the newspaper from January 1, 1835 to May 20 with the exception of two issues, January 21 and March 25.
     By June of 1835 competition arrived with the Chicago American newspaper, published by T. O. Davis, and about the same size as the Democrat. The Census of the town at that time was 3,279 people, and in the county 9,773. Calhoun hired James Curtis as editor of the paper, and a Dr. Daniel Brainard was also associated with the paper as a writer. Dr. Brainard went on to write for the Illinois and Indiana Medical and Surgical Journal. On August 17, 1836, the Democrat grew to a seven-column folio paper.
      The competition from the American and the sporadic job printing business hurt Calhoun’s finances and in 1836 he tried unsuccessfully to sell the paper to a group of investors for about $600. It’s not at all clear that this sale was unsuccessful, only that it is most historical sources reported it was. It does appear that Calhoun sold the paper to a group of investors at some point and continued publishing it, because John Wentworth, the later owner of the Democrat, bought the paper from a group of Democratic supporters. By November Calhoun found a buyer, a Horatio Hill formerly of Concord, New Hampshire. Hill sent Calhoun a bank draft for $750 and agreed to pay all the outstanding debts of the business, but when Calhoun tried to cash the draft it was returned by the bank. Hill had already left Chicago, but not before hiring an editor, John Wentworth. In the end it was Wentworth who took over Hill’s agreement and finally purchased the paper. Calhoun then retired entirely from printing. John, “Long John,” Wentworth, age 21, took over the payments Hill had agreed to at the urging of several leading citizens who became share holders in the paper. According to Andreas’ “History of Chicago”, Hill could have resumed the sale by making payment, but Hill made no attempt to provide payment after his original bank draft did not clear. Hill later returned to Chicago and did set up a successful printing company.
      Calhoun then accepted an appointment as County Treasurer, and made the assessments of 1837 and 1838. In 1838 the State Legislature created the office of County Collector and Calhoun served in that post from 1839 to 1841. In 1841 or 1842 he was elected Alderman of the Second Ward. In 1845 Calhoun joined the hardware firm of Ira B. Eddy, who later sold the business to a Joseph Matteson in 1847, who Calhoun then partnered with.
      During the time he was printing the paper Calhoun was also a member of the “Fire Kings” (No. 1) fire company, organized December 12, 1835. They had a Hubbard fire engine bought for $894.38. Calhoun was the clerk, by election of the members.
      Eventually the Democrat, like most of the 90+ papers that at one time existed in Chicago, merged into larger competitors, in this case the Chicago Tribune. John Wentworth later went on to become mayor of Chicago.

















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