Thomas Dobson’s Encyclopedia

The Library is fortunate to have a nearly complete set of Thomas Dobson’s   Encyclopædia. The eighteen volume Encyclopædia ; or, A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Miscellaneous Literature was the first encyclopedia to be printed in the United States, and was based on the popular third edition of Dobson’s Encyclopædia Britannica (1788). For the American edition, the Scottish born printer dropped Britannica from the title and took out the dedication to King George III, while also adding new information about American geography, history, etc. to make this edition more appealing to his new market. Dobson, who migrated to Philadelphia in the 1780s, smartly marketed his new edition in other ways as well. He used only American craftsmen and materials and, instead of selling door-to-door, he advertised in newspapers, periodicals and pamphlets at the same time as the announcement of the election of George Washington’s first term in 1789 to capitalize on the patriotism of citizens.[1]


The Encyclopædia must have been popular among the German speaking population in Pennsylvania, or at least it was among the Schwenkfelder’s. Some Schwenkfelders actually formed an Encyclopedia Company in 1793 in order to purchase and share the volumes. The company’s contract (written in English) stated that the members of the company would share the volumes (referred to interchangeably as “Encyclopedia” or “Dictionary”) for a set amount of time and then be given to David Schultz to “keep and preserve.” Eventually the volumes must have wound up at various Schwenkfelder homes because our accession numbers are from various sources – perhaps some members of the company did not honor the terms of the contract.


These volumes must have been the greatest source of knowledge, at least in the English language, for the Schwenkfelders in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. This is important because it shows that the Schwenkfelders were learning the most sophisticated and recent scholarship of the world at the same time as the most educated and important men in the country.



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