Joel Munsell was born in Northfield, Massachusetts, on April 14, 1808, the son of wagon-maker Joel Munsell, and his wife, Cynthia Paine. In 1825, he began an apprenticeship in a printing shop in Greenfield, Massachusetts, and two years later, became associate editor of the Albany Microscope, a newspaper that he later purchased. In 1834, Munsell married Jane Bigelow, with whom he had three children before her 1854 death. He remarried, to Mary Ann Reid, in 1856, and had six additional children with her.
By the 1840s, Munsell had acquired another printing plant. His publications increasingly emphasized American history, genealogy, and the history of printing. He became interested in the circumstances surrounding the 1777 murder of Jane McCrea, which had attained mythic proportions during the Revolutionary War and its aftermath. Around 1847, he began investigating the truth of the many conflicting accounts of McCrea’s death, most of which blamed a Mohawk named Le Loup. He solicited further information from several historians who had written about the murder, including Charles Neilson and Epaphras Hoyt, and publicized his research through the New York Historical Society, in which he was active. During the period of 1861-1864, he published the New England Historical and Genealogical Register. Munsell’s voluminous output and contributions to American history and the study of typography earned him a reputation as one of the most important printers of his time. He died January 15, 1880.