The Oldest Surviving Book Printed in the Americas

Doctrina Breve page copy .jpgTypically when we talk about the oldest “American” book, we are referring to the Bay Psalm Book, printed in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1640 (and it is, incidentally, the current record-holder for most expensive printed book sold at auction). To some, that statement is Anglocentric; if we instead take a Pan-Americanist view and eye the entire continent, we find in Mexico City a book printed nearly a century before the Bay Psalm Book. Perhaps it is safest to grant that this volume, Doctrina breve, is the oldest surviving book printed in the Americas*. According to Dorothy Penn’s 1939 article, “The Oldest American Book,” Mexico had a working printing press by 1539, and “from the Mexican press came various booklets in Spanish on the Christian faith, intended for the instruction of Indian converts.” The first full-length book, Doctrina breve, written by the first bishop of Mexico, Juan de Zumárraga, appeared in 1544.  

Beginning tomorrow, September 1, Doctrina breve will be on exhibit at the Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia in an exhibit titled “Catholics in the New World: A Selection of 16th-18th Century Texts.” Featured alongside will be the oldest book published in South America, Doctrina Christiana, printed in Lima in 1584; an eighteenth-century Mexican book containing 2,624 anagrams of the angel’s greeting to Mary; and prayer books and catechisms translated into Native American languages from across the Americas, including Aymara, Zapotec, and Montagnais.  

Will Pope Francis get a glimpse of these rare tomes while in Philadelphia in late September? It’s not on the official schedule. You, however, can see them through January 30, 2016.

Image Courtesy of the Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia.

*An earlier version of this post reported that Doctrina breve was the oldest surviving book printed in the Western Hemisphere. Some friends in the UK disagreed, as the Prime Meridian separating East from West slices through England, leaving part of England and several other European countries in the Western Hemisphere--and they were printing before 1544.
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