Meet “Founding Mother” Mary Katharine Goddard, First Female Postmaster in the U.S. and Printer of the Declaration of Independence

Once again, it’s time for Amer­i­cans to cel­e­brate their country’s “birth­day,” a rather mirac­u­lous event, we might say, since the only peo­ple present at the birth were found­ing fathers. See their names on the print­ed Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence above, from the out­sized John Han­cock, to famous favorites Ben­jamin Franklin, Thomas Jef­fer­son, and sec­ond cousins John and Sam Adams, to a bunch of oth­er guys no one remem­bers. But wait, zoom in (to the scanned copy here), who’s that at the bot­tom? No, the very, very bot­tom, in tiny type…. “Bal­ti­more, in Mary­land: Print­ed by Mary Katharine God­dard.” Who?

“If you’ve nev­er noticed it or heard of her, you aren’t alone,” writes Petu­la Dvo­rak at The Wash­ing­ton Post, but Mary God­dard could be called “a Found­ing Moth­er, of sorts,” as a pub­lish­er of the Mary­land Jour­nal, pro­pri­etor of a print­ing press, book­store own­er, and post­mas­ter gen­er­al of Bal­ti­more.

God­dard was fear­less her entire career as one of America’s first female pub­lish­ers, print­ing scoops from Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War bat­tles from Con­cord to Bunker Hill and con­tin­u­ing to pub­lish after her offices were twice raid­ed and her life was repeat­ed­ly threat­ened by haters.

In “her bold­est move,” she put her full name at the bot­tom of copies of the Dec­la­ra­tion that her press print­ed and dis­trib­uted to all of the colonies. This was the first copy Amer­i­cans would see with all of the sign­ers’ name. God­dard had received the com­mis­sion from Con­gress and more hon­ors besides. In 1775, she was appoint­ed Baltimore’s first post­mas­ter, serv­ing “under the lead­er­ship of Post­mas­ter Gen­er­al Ben­jamin Franklin,” notes the Nation­al Postal Muse­um. She “may have been the first woman post­mas­ter in colo­nial Amer­i­ca.”

The print­ing and postal trades were a fam­i­ly busi­ness: her father Giles served as post­mas­ter of New Lon­don, Con­necti­cut, and her younger broth­er William estab­lished the colo­nial postal sys­tem. Just as she has been side­lined by his­to­ry, she was side­lined in her life­time. She “lost her job as pub­lish­er,” writes Dvo­rak, “after her broth­er mar­ried and returned to Bal­ti­more in 1784, tak­ing over the Mary­land Jour­nal and oust­ing his sis­ter.”

And after serv­ing as Bal­ti­more post­mas­ter for 14 years, she was pushed out of the job by Post­mas­ter Gen­er­al Samuel Osgood, who “didn’t think a woman could han­dle all the trav­el asso­ci­at­ed with the job.” (Over 200 mer­chants and res­i­dents of Bal­ti­more peti­tioned Osgood, to no avail.) The sto­ry of Goddard’s life and career is both inspir­ing and frustrating—but here’s to hop­ing she makes it into the his­to­ry books where she belongs. See her print­ed copy of the Dec­la­ra­tion in high-res­o­lu­tion detail at the New York Pub­lic Library’s Dig­i­tal Col­lec­tions.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Read George Washington’s “110 Rules of Civil­i­ty”: The Code of Decen­cy That Guid­ed America’s First Pres­i­dent

An Archive of 8,000 Ben­jamin Franklin Papers Now Dig­i­tized & Put Online

Thomas Jefferson’s Hand­writ­ten Vanil­la Ice Cream Recipe

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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