American publisher Mary Katherine Goddard (1738–1816), a prominent printer and newspaper editor of the Revolutionary War era, was the first to publish the names of the signatories on the Declaration of Independence. She is considered America's first female postmaster and the first woman appointed to a federal government office.
Mary Katherine Goddard was born in Connecticut on June 16, 1738, either in New London or Groton, and she grew up in the seaport town of New London, where her father, Giles Goddard, was a doctor and postmaster. Her mother, Sarah Goddard, was born Sarah Updike, the daughter of a wealthy Rhode Island landowner, and she had been well educated by a French tutor. In turn, she gave Mary a first-rate education unusual for a woman of her era. Goddard also studied Latin, French, math, and science in the New London public schools.
Goddard's younger brother, William Goddard, was a printer, and her economic fortunes soon became linked to his. After Giles Goddard contracted gout in 1755 and could no longer work, Sarah Goddard arranged for her son to apprentice with a printer in New Haven, 43 miles to the west. In 1762, the now-widowed Sarah financed Rhode Island's first newspaper, the Providence Gazette, which William established. That same year, both Mary and Sarah Goddard moved from Connecticut to Rhode Island to work at William's new venture.
In May of 1765, as Britain's Stamp Act wounded publishing in the American colonies and circulation of the Providence Gazette declined, the Goddards temporarily closed the newspaper. William left Providence to found a similar newspaper in Philadelphia, leaving the two women to run the Providence printing business on their own. Under the title Sarah Goddard and Company, they printed stationery, pamphlets, and broadsides (single-page publications), as well as blank legal forms, bonds, and deeds. Starting in 1766, after the Stamp Act's repeal, mother and daughter also resumed publication of the Providence Gazette. They also produced West's Almanack, an annual publication acquired from Benjamin West in 1762, which published sunrise, sunset, moon phase, and tidal schedules and had a readership that reached north of Providence as far as Halifax, Nova Scotia.
As William Goddard's relationships with the company's silent partners worsened, he was pressed to sell the Providence printing business. Sarah Goddard refused at first, but in November of 1768, the Providence business was sold to Sarah's assistant, and mother and daughter moved again, this time to work for William in Philadelphia. There, they helped manage the publication of the Pennsylvania Chronicle and other printing work.
After Sarah Goddard died in Philadelphia in 1770, Mary Goddard took over her role, often supervising the printing press during her brother's long absences. Under her leadership, both the Providence and Philadephia newspapers became renowned far outside their cities for their quality. She was also considered an expert compositor of type.
William moved to Baltimore to start another newspaper and printing company in August of 1773, and Mary took over the Philadelphia business until it was sold in February of 1774. She moved again to be with her brother and oversaw his business in Baltimore while he traveled to start a new American postal system, one free of British control. Mary assumed control of William's newspaper, the Maryland Journal, as well as his printing office. Meanwhile, hounded by creditors, William served time in debtor's prison.
Starting in the first half of 1775, the Maryland Journal listed Mary Goddard as editor and publisher. In August of 1775, William appointed her the postmaster of Baltimore, part of the new continental postal system. The position, which was commonly awarded to newspaper publishers at the time, likely made her the first female postmaster in America. While William Goddard continued to travel to develop the postal system, Mary helped found new post offices within Maryland.
As publisher of the Maryland Journal, Goddard took an editorial stance in favor of the American Revolution. In June of 1774, she published a lengthy report of the British closing of Boston Harbor, the parliament's reaction to the Boston Tea Party of 1773. In April of 1775, she urged women to raise flax and wool and look for ways to be frugal and thereby help America become more independent from Europe. Once war broke out, her coverage included commentary that favored the colonists. “The British behaved with savage barbarity,” she wrote in her edition of June 7, 1775 (as reported by Murphy in Great Women of the Press). She published Thomas Paine's prorevolutionary essay “Common Sense” in two installments in the paper. Under her leadership, the Maryland Journal became “one of the most vigorous voice of the rebellious colonies,” according to Maurine Beasley and Sheila Silver in their book Women in Media: A Documentary Source Book.
In mid-1776, Goddard struck a blow for press freedom by taking a critic to court: George Somerville, a British loyalist who had come to her office, was angered by a story and threatened her. The Baltimore County Committee condemned Somerville's conduct in June of 1776, declaring that it had a “direct tendency to influence the Freedom of the Press, which in every free country should be inviolably maintained,” according to Murphy.
Goddard's most famous printing job was released on January 18, 1777: the first copy of the Declaration of Independence that included the names of its signers. She got the job from the Continental Congress, which had relocated from Philadelphia to Baltimore in the wake of the British army's advances. Recognizing the historical importance of the document, Goddard signed it with her full name instead of her initials, as she did for most other projects. She paid post riders to distribute the document across the new United States.
Goddard's service as postmaster throughout the Revolutionary period and beyond also gave her a pioneering place in U.S. history: she was likely the first woman to hold a job in the federal government, and in 1784, she established a postal delivery service. In praise of her accomplishments, Postmaster General Ebenezer Hazard described her as a “careful and conscientious public servant,” according to Murphy. Goddard often went unpaid because the Continental Congress had little money in its treasury, so she sometimes paid post riders out of her own finances.
From July 1779 to May 1783, Goddard's Maryland Journal was Baltimore's only newspaper, and by 1784, it had one of the largest circulations of any newspaper in the United States. “Throughout her career as editor and publisher of the Journal, Goddard maintained a level of excellence in appearance and content that few printers could challenge,” wrote Carol Sue Humphrey in American National Biography online.
In January of 1784, after a falling-out between the siblings, William Goddard forced his sister out of her position as publisher of the Maryland Journal. By November, Mary and William Goddard exposed their sibling rivalry to the public by publishing competing almanacs, and in William's publication he described his sister as a “hypocritical character,” according to Konstantin Dierks in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Goddard cut off all ties to her brother and did not attend his 1786 wedding. She published one more almanac, in 1785, before leaving publishing to open a bookshop in Baltimore. Her brother ran the Maryland Journal for eight more years, until he sold it to pay off debts.
Goddard remained Baltimore's postmaster for five more years, until October of 1789, when the new postmaster general, Samuel Osgood, fired her because of her gender and replaced her with John White of Annapolis, Maryland. A petition signed by 200 prominent Baltimore citizens demanded her reinstatement, but it was unsuccessful. As Osgood maintained, the postal district was being enlarged and he felt a man could better undertake the travel required for the expanded position, which would include supervision of the postal service in the South.
Goddard appealed to President George Washington and also petitioned the new U.S. Senate when it sat in January of 1790. “She hath been discharged without the smaller imputation of any Fault, and without any previous notice whatsoever,” argued her petition to that congressional body, as reprinted in Beasley and Silver's Women in Media. “These are but poor rewards indeed for fourteen Years faithful Service, performed in the worst of times.” The office, she added, was “established by her own Industry in the best years of her life, & whereon depended all her future Prospects of subsistence.” Washington's response to her complaint was noncommittal and the Senate did not act.
Goddard ran her Baltimore bookstore until about 1809 or 1810, although by the 1800s, she appeared in city directories as a storekeeper, suggesting that she gradually focused on selling other dry goods. She never married, which was unusual for women in her day, and died in Baltimore on August 12, 1816. In her will, she freed a slave, Belinda Starling, who had aided her during the last years of her life. She also left all her property to Starling. While “her last years were not much rewarded by either the brother she supported so long and so loyally nor by the country she served so ably,” as Murphy wrote in Great Women of the Press, history reveals Goddard to be one of the most important newspaper publishers in America's revolutionary era.
Beasley, Maurine, and Sheila Silver, compilers, Women in Media: A Documentary Source Book, Women's Institute for Freedom of the Press, 1977.
Schlipp, Madelon Golden, and Sharon M. Murphy, Great Women of the Press, Southern Illinois University Press, 1983.