Dobson’s (Encyclopedic) Choice

Dobson Encyclopedia, Image courtesy of the Library Company of PhiladelphiaHere, on the Sixth Square, we’ve been discussing the need for a Philadelphia encyclopedia before New York City has two.

There’s an even deeper point of pride here. America’s first encyclopedia was issued in Philadelphia, back in 1790. Who was responsible for this? That would be Thomas Dobson, a wily, transplanted Scot.

The cards seemed to be stacked against Dobson. Americans had a lot on their minds right after the American Revolution. With an unstable economy, Philadelphia, then the nation’s capital with 40,000 residents, more resembled a ghost town as yellow fever plagued the city’s progress.

No one in this newly minted nation had taken on such a massive publishing project. American printers and engravers were in short supply. In an English-speaking world dominated by the British printing industry, American books tended to be printed on inexpensive paper. Only rarely were they embellished or bound finely. Americans were not accustomed to home-grown extravagance.

Going against the odds, Dobson devoted ten years to this enormous work. True, this encyclopedia’s eighteen volumes and three supplements, with more than 16,600 pages and nearly 600 engraved copper plates, is based on (plagiarized, in today’s parlance) the third edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. (Well, not entirely. Dobson added and augmented pertinent information about America.)

Still, the project was Herculean. According to Robert Arner in Dobson’s Encyclopedia: The Publisher, Text and Publication of America’s First Britannica (1991), Dobson’s offered his work at one-third the cost of British classic.

Image courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia.

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One Comment on “Dobson’s (Encyclopedic) Choice”


  1. […] off reasons for a Phillypedia project, besides the fact that America’s first encyclopedia was printed here. Nash knows, though, that the way to Philly’s heart is stoking a competition between us and […]


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