Why was the first book printed in Pittsburgh written in Italian? Spoiler: it wasn’t!

Above is the title page of the 1761 Lettere d’un vago italiano ad un suo amico with its place of publication listed as the thriving metropolis of “Pittburgo” a classic case of what bibliographers call a false imprint. I first came across this example nearly a year ago when researching European books which falsely claimed to be printed in North America and this April a copy of the first volume came up for sale from the bookseller Garrett Scott and is now here at Penn (call#: DP34 .C35 1761).

In 1761, Pittsburgh was only a few years old and had a population barely over 250. The first printing press and locally printed book didn’t come to the city until after Independence in 1786.  Given this fact and thanks to the sleuthing of the Italian bibliographer Marino Parenti, we know that this book is in fact part of a larger four volume series printed in Milan by the Agnelli family between 1761 and 1768, all of which were given a false “Pittburgo” imprint [1].

It’s interesting to speculate about what Italian readers thought when they saw the name of such a remote and marginal town on the title page. The text of the book itself consists of a number of letters recounting travel and conditions in Spain – why not give the book a false imprint from a Spanish city then? I can’t answer any of these questions with certainty but I like to think that Agnelli chose Pittsburgh to give a hint of the exotic. Pittsburgh and what is now western Pennsylvania likely figured in Italian news accounts of the Seven Years’ War and it would have appealed as an up-to-date reference for those in the know – something akin to how the name of the city of Timbuktu has often been used in Europe as a metaphor for remoteness. So while we can’t claim to have the first book published in Pittsburgh, I think this little volume is fascinating for showing a hint of how European readers and publishers must have viewed North America in the eighteenth century.

For more on false imprints see a wonderful recent piece by Shannon Supple at the Clark Library as well as a series of visualizations of select false imprints that I created last year.

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[1] The entire set has been digitized by the University of Illinois and is available through HathiTrust. Note that the fourth volume includes a second title page giving the place of publication as Lucca.