The Nantucket Historical Association recently added an unusual item to its map collection: an embossed outline map of Nantucket, tucked in the back of the 1841 Annual Report of the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts Asylum for the Blind, now known as the Perkins School for the Blind.
“It seems that the head of the school, Dr. Samuel Howe, when he founded the school, or was one of the co-founders of the school, he was interested in building a library for his students, and there were not many tactile books available for the blind at this point in time,” said Amelia Holmes, Associate Director of the Historical Association’s Research Library. “And so he was interested in increasing not just educational texts but leisure texts as well that they could read in their own free time.”
The Braille method was being developed in France at the time, but it wasn’t well-known in 1841. So Dr. Howe developed his own method of tactile type, known as “Boston Line Type,” that could fit twice as much text on the page.
“What he wanted to do was print the books himself, or for the school to print the books. And in order for that to happen, there was a special press designed to be able to print this kind of tactile type. But he wanted the finances to be separate from the school’s finances, so he sought out independent fundraising in the mid-1830s to be able to create this press,” said Holmes.
Dr. Holmes sought out donors on Nantucket and in New Bedford, and eventually was able to raise enough money - $15,000 in all - to build the press.
The first book printed in 1835 using Boston line type was the Acts of the Apostles, the 5th book of the Bible’s New Testament.
“It’s dedicated to the people of Nantucket and New Bedford. He did have relationships with Nantucket. The editor of the Nantucket Inquirer at the time was a close personal friend of his. And the Perkins school, in their collection, has a letter written by the editor to his daughter, and it’s about his visit to the school and his impressions of the school and its students,” said Holmes.
When Perkins published its annual report for 1841, the embossed map of Nantucket was most likely included as a thank-you gesture.
In addition to religious and literary texts, Howe also printed textbooks and atlases. The Perkins press became one of the most active for the blind at the time. The Boston line type method was in use for about 50 years, until around 1908, before being overtaken by the Braille method.
“There were several other kinds of tactile type being developed at this time, but his was the most efficient because it took up one half of the space of other kinds of type and was able to be printed for about a quarter of the cost,” said Holmes. “And what I think is interesting about it is that he had considered arbitrary types like Braille, where there’s not necessarily like a visual correlation between the letter “a” and the single dot in Braille. But he dismissed it because he didn’t find it to be aesthetically pleasing to the sighted eye. He felt like this text that was going to be used by non-sighted people should also be aesthetically pleasing to the sighted people.”
Holmes notes that, aside from its aesthetic beauty, the embossed map is a unique example of Nantucket’s impact beyond its borders. The map is one of only a few known to exist. It will be housed at the Nantucket Historical Association’s research library, and will be available for the public to view.