James Johnston: Georgia’s First Newspaper Publisher and Printer

The James Johnston historical marker was dedicated in 1955. View the James Johnston historical marker listing.


Historical Background

Created by SCAD student Laura Erazo as part of her SCAD art history department coursework, with guidance from art history professor Holly Goldstein, Ph.D., 2016.

James Johnston’s print shop was located on Broughton Street, east of Drayton Street; this is the current location of the famous Marshall House Hotel. The print shop can be seen in an 1837 drawing by Firmin Cerveau, City of Savannah, located in the foreground, at the lower left side, the third edification with a white façade and the inscription “Savannah Georgia, News Print Office” (Figure 4).  Today, on a column of the façade of the Marshall House Hotel there is a plaque (Figure 5) erected by the Georgia Society of the Colonial Dames of America in 1931, commemorating the location of Johnston’s print shop, highlighting his role as printer of the laws and paper currency of the Province, as well as the printer and editor of the Georgia Gazette.

In 1762 Johnston received a grant by the Provincial Assembly for setting up a press in Georgia and designated him as the Royal Printer. He was appointed to this position by recommendations that described him as a careful printer with great craft.  At that time, official and legal documents were copied by hand, making it a long, tedious process, filled with unintentional mistakes, therefore a printing press became a primary need for the colony. There are no records that describe from where Johnston got his press and considering that he was given two years to set it up, it can be inferred that he did not bring the equipment with him. Johnston used a wooden hand press in his office, and even though there are no surviving reproductions of it, Figure 6 illustrates a press of his time period. Figure 7 illustrates tools of the time period. The evidence of his work indicates that the typefaces used came from the English famous foundry of William Caslon, the ones used by Johnston were popularly known as “Old English” [i](Figure 8). Johnston’s grant agreement required him to print all the laws of the province, and all the official proclamations, for which he would receive a hundred pounds annually for the next four years.  It should be noted that Johnston’s official job was not to publish a newspaper thus, the Georgia Gazette’s production was his own personal and financial endeavor. [ii]

The first edition of the Georgia Gazette consisted of four pages, each of seven and a quarter inches by eleven and a quarter inches in size, with two columns to the page (Figure 9). It was printed on a new long primer type, on a foolscap sheet folio. The first page, under the header “European Intelligence,” included reprints from Moscow, Hamburg, Paris, The Hague, and London. Below the “America” header were items from Boston, Philadelphia, New Jersey, New York, Antigua, and Charleston. Savannah news was located on page three, and two pages at the end included advertisements, such as for ships sailing from and to Savannah, food prices, and other topics. The fourth page was mainly devoted to advertising, including property sales, notices about runaway slaves, and other information (Figures 15–21). At the end of the publication Johnston had advertising for his own print shop where consumers could purchase stationary, legal forms, and writing ink, and he also advertised the books that were available from his publishing shop (Figure 11). This pattern of the paper’s order was carried throughout Johnston’s career of 35 years as a printer and editor, with some minor modifications. The newspaper was printed every Thursday, however since it reprinted news from around the world, Johnston had to wait for the other publications to arrive and sometimes those would be delayed, affecting the schedule of the Georgia Gazette. Besides the newspaper publication, Johnston also printed pamphlets during the Colonial Period, which included:

John Tobler’s  South Carolina and Georgia Almanack, For the Year of Our Lord, 1764, John Joachim Zubly‘s The Stamp-Act Repealed: A Sermon Preached in the Meeting at Savannah in Georgia, June 25th, 1766, and Anthony Stokes’s Directions for the Officers of his Majesty’s General Court, and Sessions of Over and Terminer, and General Goal Delivery of the Province of Georgia.

Johnston is often admired and seen as a pioneer of Georgia journalism in his small Broughton Street office. He described his publication as ‘public press,’ where he provided the public  with content that they were interested about. Johnston firmly believed that his job as a newspaper publisher was to print and not to opine. Throughout his work, he remained impartial to the growing tension between Loyalists and Colonists, offering opinions from both sides. Johnston also received letters from anonymous contributors that were later turned into columns within the Georgia Gazette. Some crown officials found this offensive, and when they had the intention to oblige him to print whatever they thought was proper, Johnston resolved the issue by shutting down his press and remaining true for what he considered his impartial printer job to be. This position and his great skill and craft, which were not easily found around the region, is what allowed him to return to Savannah on September 1782 after the end of the American Revolution. On January 30, 1783, Johnston began a new publication under the name Gazette of the State of Georgia (Figure 12). Readers highlighted the seamless transition from a colonial newspaper to a newspaper produced by an independent country, where Johnston maintained the same values of objective journalism and quality craftsmanship. He covered Independence Day celebrations the same way he had covered the King’s birthday. In October 23, 1788 the name of the paper was changed back to Georgia Gazette. In 1789, his son Nicholas was made partner in the business, and the newspaper changed its imprint to “Printed by James and Nicholas Johnston, Broughton–Street.” Nicholas held the same values as his father, leaving his personal political views outside of the newspaper. The publication continued to offer readers a neutral view, making it impossible to decipher if the printers were Federalist or Republicans.

The great fire that took over Savannah on the night of November 26, 1796 destroyed the office of the Georgia Gazette with all its materials. It took more than nine months for new equipment to be secured from Philadelphia and another press to be set up. The Gazette reappeared on September 2, 1797 with the imprint “Nicholas Johnston & Co.” At this point, James Johnston was fifty-nine years old and wanted his son to carry on the publication of the newspaper.  The reproduction of an eagle in the banner started being printed on November 12, 1799 (Figures 13 and 13.1). For some, the patriotic symbol meant to venerate the rising spirit of nationalism in the country. By the turn of the century, the city of Savannah had exponentially grown, with over 5,000 inhabitants, and the newspaper struggled to adapt. Local news was still placed on the second page, with little emphasis. The Gazette suffered a great lost when Nicholas Johnston died on October 20, 1802. James Johnston carried the publication until November 25, 1802 when he announced in the newspaper his decision to stop publishing the Georgia Gazette, making that publication the last one (Figure 14). Nicholas Johnston’s careful craft can be identified throughout his newspapers, adding beautiful decorations and small illustrations to his pages (Figures 23–25). Through his career, Johnston and his newspaper had a great influence on the development and later independence of the colony. The printmaking tradition has tremendously evolved since the colonial period. Now newspapers are printed at large-scale by machines, however the tradition remains and has evolved as an art form.


[i] Alexander Lawrence, James Johnston, Georgia’s first printer. Savannah: Pigeonhole Press, 1956.

[ii] Johnston Biographical Vertical File, Georgia Historical Society.

1. James Johnston signature. Courtesy of SCAD Digital Image Database, 2016.

2. James Johnston Georgia’s First Newspaper Publisher and Printer. Colonial Park Cemetery, Savannah, Georgia. Courtesy of Laura A. Erazo, 2016.

3. James Johnston Georgia’s First Newspaper Publisher and Printer. Colonial Park Cemetery, Savannah, Georgia. Courtesy of Laura A. Erazo, 2016.

4. Firmin Cerveau, View of Savannah, 1837. Courtesy of the Georgia Historical Society.

5. Plaque commemorating Georgia’s First Printer James Johnston by the Georgia Society of Colonial Dames of America. Courtesy of Georgia Historical Society, 2016.

6. “Wooden Hand Press Used in Johnston’s Day” by Ray Dilley. Courtesy of SCAD Digital Image Database, 2016.

7. “Colonial Composing Stick” by Ray Dilley. Courtesy of SCAD Digital Image Database, 2016.

8. Title Page by James Johnston. From James Johnston, Georgia’s First Printer, with Decoration and Remarks on Johnston’s Work by Ray Dilley. Courtesy of SCAD Digital Image Database, 2016.

9. Front Page of Georgia Gazette, April 7 1763. Courtesy Massachusetts Historical Society.

10. Detail Georgia Gazette, writing ink advertisement. Courtesy Georgia Historical Society, 2016.

11. Advertising for Andrew’s “South Carolina and Georgia Almanack and Ephemeris, for the Year of Our Lord 1787,” in the Georgia Gazette. Courtesy Georgia Historical Society, 2016.

12. Front page, Gazette of the State of Georgia January 4, 1787. Courtesy Georgia Historical Society, 2016.

12.1. Detail, Banner The Gazette of the State of Georgia. Thursday, January 4, 1787. Courtesy Georgia Historical Society, 2016.

13. Front Page, Georgia Gazette. Thursday, January 9, 1800. Courtesy Georgia Historical Society, 2016.

13.1. Eagle, banner detail. Georgia Gazette, Thursday, January 9, 1800. Courtesy Georgia Historical Society, 2016

14. Front Page, Georgia Gazette. Thursday, November 25, 1802. Courtesy Georgia Historical Society, 2016.

15. Detail, Corn Advertisement in Georgia Gazette. Courtesy Georgia Historical Society, 2016.

16. Detail, Fresh Drugs and Medicines Advertisement in Georgia Gazette. Courtesy Georgia Historical Society, 2016.

17. Detail Blank Prices Advertisement in Georgia Gazette. Courtesy Georgia Historical Society, 2016.

18. Detail Slave Carpenter and Slave Shoemaker Advertisement in Georgia Gazette. Courtesy Georgia Historical Society, 2016.

18. 1. Detail Runaway Slave Advertisement in Georgia Gazette. Courtesy Georgia Historical Society, 2016.

19. Detail Ship Advertisement in Georgia Gazette. Courtesy Georgia Historical Society, 2016.

20. Detail Plantation Sale Advertisement in Georgia Gazette. Courtesy Georgia Historical Society, 2016.

21. Detail Ship Schedule Advertisement in Georgia Gazette. Courtesy Georgia Historical Society, 2016.

22. Detail Imprint in Georgia Gazette. Courtesy Georgia Historical Society, 2016.

23. Detail Imprint in Georgia Gazette. Courtesy Georgia Historical Society, 2016.

24. Detail Poem and in Georgia Gazette. Courtesy Georgia Historical Society, 2016.

25. Detail Imprint in Georgia Gazette. Courtesy Georgia Historical Society, 2016.

26.  Laura Erazo. Me/We (2016). Etching on paper. Courtesy of Laura A. Erazo, 2016.


Further Reading

Louis Turner Griffith and John Erwin Talmadge, Georgia Journalism, 1763-1950. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1951.

Barbara Lacey, From Sacred to Secular: Visual Images in Early American Publications. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2007.

Alexander Lawrence,  James Johnston, Georgia’s First Printer. With Decoration and Remarks on Johnston’s work by Ray Dilley. Savannah: Pigeonhole Press, 1956.

F.D. Lee and J. L. Agnew, Historical Record of the City of Savannah. Savannah: Printed and Published by J.H Estill, 1869.