Ann Smith Franklin was sixty-seven years old when her son James Jr. died and left her a four-year-old newspaper to tend. Ann Franklin knew exactly what to do.
She had learned the printing business in Boston alongside her husband James, and had instructed his young apprenticed brother Benjamin well enough for him to be able to set up his own press. Ann and James published the New England Courant, which …many considered disrespectful of the civil authorities, so after James spent a month in jail for expressing his opinions a bit too clearly, the couple decamped for Newport.
There they set up Rhode Island’s first printing press and all went well until 1735 when her husband James got terribly sick and died. Ann was thirty-nine years old and found herself left with the family printing business and five young children to feed.
In 1736, she asked the General Assembly of Rhode Island for a contract: Whereas your petitioner being left with several small children which is a great charge to her, and having not sufficient business at the printing trade, humbly prays hour Honors will grant her the favor to print Acts of the Colony and what other things shall be lawful and necessary to be printed, in order for your Petitioner’s support and maintenance of her family, she having no other way to support herself.
She got the job. Operating under the imprint of “The Widow Franklin” she also printed books, sermons, pamphlets, election ballots, legal forms, the Rhode Island Almanack, the colony’s charter, paper currency, broadsides of private quarrels, advertisements for merchants, as well as popular British novels.
She sent her son James, Jr. off to apprentice with his Uncle Benjamin in Philadelphia, while her daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, helped her set type in the shop. When James returned from Philadelphia in 1748, they named the business ‘Ann and James Franklin.’ Ten years later they started The Newport Mercury and it became one of colonial America’s important newspapers.
When James, Jr. died in 1762, Ann went right back to the printing press and became editor of the newspaper as well.
Ann Smith Franklin died on April 16, 1763. Her obituary appeared in The Mercury describing her as someone whose ‘economy and industry … supported herself and her family, and brought up her children in a genteel manner.’ She was the first American woman newspaper editor, the first woman to write an almanac, the official printer to the colony of Rhode Island, and a pioneer in American publishing.