June 2022

By Rebecca Johnston

Rollo G. Silver worked in a variety of professions and had many interests, but he is known today for his contributions to the history of early American printing, publishing, and typography. Throughout his life from 1909 to 1989, he witnessed some of the most turbulent events of the twentieth century, including the Great Depression and two World Wars. However, Silver found his home in academia and scholarly research, publishing several books on early American history and receiving recognition for his contributions to the field.

Rollo G. Silver was born to Anna (Newman) and Stanley Gabriel Silver in New York on June 27, 1909. As an undergraduate, he attended Brown University and graduated in 1931, in the early days of the Great Depression. Returning to New York City, Silver worked at the luxury department store, the B. Altman Company, on Fifth Avenue. He moved to Boston in 1934 and managed the Better Service Garage in Brockton, Massachusetts. Balancing work with his scholarly interests, Silver studied at Boston University and received a Master’s degree in English in 1941.

As World War II began, Silver joined the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps in 1943. He was assigned to the Climatic Research Laboratory in Lawrence, Massachusetts, where he participated in tests designed to test the clothing and equipment worn and used by soldiers under varying climatic conditions. After the war ended, Silver continued working in the laboratory as assistant director until 1947. Building on his academic interests as well as his experience in scientific research, Silver then sought out opportunities in the field of library science.

In 1948, Silver graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Library Science from Simmons University. Silver continued researching and gained experience at other libraries before returning to Simmons in 1950 as a Professor of Library Science. He taught there for 15 years before retiring in 1965 to pursue his research interests full time.

One of Silver’s longest-standing research interests was the life of Walt Whitman. Silver began publishing essays on Whitman in 1930, well before beginning his formal career as a scholar. Silver also collected many of Whitman’s poems. In partnership with his wife, Alice Gindin, whom he married in 1933, Silver compiled a set of manuscripts and other works related to the famous author. Silver donated a 1930 edition of A Child’s Reminiscence by Whitman to the Athenæum, which is available for viewing by appointment.

A majority of Silver’s work focused on the early printers of the United States. In 1960, Silver published Mathew Carey 1760–1839, which described in detail the equipment used by this early American printer and the costs associated with it. Typefounding in America, 1787–1825 from 1965 explored the construction of metallic printer type in early America. According to C. William Miller of Temple University, works focusing on this topic in early America were relatively rare and Silver’s work “fills an obvious gap.” In response to 1967’s The American Printer, 1787–1825, Lester J. Cappon of the Institute of Early American History and Culture declared that Silver “has established himself in this distinguished company [of scholars focusing on early American printing], contributing notably to the bibliography of early American printing.” Rather than just a history of printing in America, this work “is an exposition of printing as a craft, the artisans involved and their relations with one another, the business and practice of printing, the printer’s dealings with authors, and problems of typography that relate ultimately to bookmaking and the art of printing.” Silver’s use of detail as well as his ability to communicate with his reader made his works notable.

During his lifetime, Silver was a part of many organizations that spoke to his interests. He joined the bibliophilic Grolier Club and the Society of Printers; he was also one of the founding members of the American Printing Historical Association. He was a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts as well as an honorary member of the Bibliographical Society of America. Silver also served as a trustee of Boston University and received an honorary doctor of letters degree from Brown University, his alma mater, in 1986. The author, professor, and lifelong learner passed away on September 20, 1989. Today, the Boston Athenæum is honored to be the home of many of Silver’s published works as well as donations from his collection of Walt Whitman’s works.

Further Reading:

The American Printer, 1787–1825 by Rollo G. Silver
The Boston Book Trade, 1800-1825 by Rollo G. Silver
The Costs of Mathew Carey’s Printing Equipment by Rollo G. Silver
The Inventory of the Rollo G. Silver Collection at Boston University
The Rollo G. Silver Collection of Printing and Publishing History at Brown University
Typefounding in America, 1787–1825 by Rollo G. Silver