Lydia R. (Steele) Bailey was born in Lancaster County on Feb. 1, 1779 in Drumore Township, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. She was the daughter of William W. Steele, Esq. and Elizabeth Lydia Bailey. She was also the niece of General James Steele and General John Steele, both patriots of the Revolutionary War era. At 19, she married her cousin, another Revolutionary War patriot, Robert Bailey, a printer by trade. They started a family and had four children: Ellen, Eliza, William and Lydia. Robert was the son of a prominent printer in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, who also had a printing business in Philadelphia. The premature death of her husband in 1808 left her widowed at a young age with four children and deeply in debt. The debt resulted from an agreement he had made with his brother regarding distribution of profits from the family-owned “Bailey Press.” Having good roots, a positive attitude, encouragement and support from both sides of her family, Lydia set out to learn the trade, make friends and influence the customers. Thus situated, she learned to set type, advertised the good quality of their work and through some good bookseller friends, aware of her plight, received several nice printing contracts.
Another patriot, Philip Frenuau, gave the widow publication rights to a new edition of his “Poems.” These poems were published in two small volumes, with frontis-pieces engraved by Eckstein. The income from this single venture was sufficient to clear Robert’s debts and convince her that printing would work to support the family.
She also succeeded in obtaining further contracts when her uncle, General John F. Steele, and his son Robert, who served as directors of the Port of Philadelphia. She was also printer for the City of Philadelphia from 1830-1850. While the specialty of her office was bookwork, her ingenuity and dexterity in putting maps on rollers enabled her to teach the children and support her family.
Lydia Bailey was a force to be reckoned with. For more than 50 years she owned and operated one of Philadelphia’s best print shops. She hired and supervised more than 160 male printers during her career. What few realize is that Lydia became a high-quality printer both in Philadelphia and Lancaster. That was the key to her success … quality work. Lydia was America’s most productive 19th century female printer and publisher.
She died Feb. 24, 1869, three weeks after reaching her 90th birthday. She had retired soon after the death of her trusted and only son, Robert, in 1861.
Note: In Jacob Eicholtz portrait of Lydia, she is holding a letterpress printer’s block.