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Printing in Colonial America

Updated: May 14, 2023

PRINTER and PRESSMEN as illustrated in the first encyclopedia printed in America, that by Thomas Dobson in Philadelphia in 1798.

Excerpted from The Chronicle Vol. VIII, No. 3, July 1955

By Edwin C. Whittemore

Printing, in the sense that we think of it today, began back around 14 5; when John Guttenberg used metal type for the first time in the printing of the "Mazarine Bible." Flourishing under patronage, it bloomed as an art form, and the principal publications of the early presses were sumptuous Bibles for cathedrals and superb copies of classics for libraries and the wealthy patrons. That was of course on the Contin­ent, but as early as 1474 the first book was printed in Eng­land, William Caxton's "The Game of Chess."

The development of the printing press and the various processes of printing since those 15th century days is interest­ing to observe. The first method was a simple laying of the paper upon the inked type form, and the making of an im­pression by burnishing or friction much as proofs are pulled even today. In the second step, the "press" itself was the lower end of a screw. Type forming the page to be printed was laid upon a table. After being bound together by a frame and wedges, it was inked by rubbing with an inking-ball. The paper sheet was then laid on by hand, and a flat plate of wood or iron, under the screw, was brought down by revolv­ing the screw, putting the type under pressure and in con­tact with the paper.

A group of improvements to this simple process were devised by the Earl of Stanhope or under his encouragement and really constitute the third step in press development. They included the use of a heavy plank underneath the type to equalize pressure over the area to be printed, plus a lever in connection with the screw which brought down the pressure plate or platen more quickly. In addition a moveable car­riage was created for the type form, so that it was run out from under the platen after each impression for easier re­inking. In I 790 William Nichols made technical and ex­perimental advances, incorporating in what might be called step four both an inking device, and a spring to release and push up the platen. Nichols also conceived a cylinder press. However his ideas were never made practical or put into use at that time.

The fifth and very definite step in advance was an im­provement on the level arrangement, an iron elbow joint being added, so that a simple straightening of the joint brought down the platen. This type of press was the common one in Colonial America.

From this point on, developments took various direc­tions. Most important, and perhaps step number six was the cylinder press of 1830 where a cylinder held the sheet of paper suspended by tautly strung tapes. The 'table' bearing the type form moved horizontally back and forth under the cylinder and form and cylinder were caused to meet going at equal speeds. About the same time in Boston, a horse was used to rotate a shaft in the basement of a building and power to run a press was taken from the shaft by belt in the floor above.

The terminology used in connection with the press illustrated is in many ways different from the printer's termi­nology today, yet in many cases similar. According to the Encyclopedia's description of this press there are the vertical "cheeks" of the frame; the "cap" or top crosspiece; two sup­porting horizontals for the spindle known as the "Garter" and the "Crane." The "Spit" under the carriage is a long piece of iron with a double wheel in the middle. Around them are leather "girts" extending to each end of the plank. At the outer end of the "Spit" is a handle or "Rounce" to be seen just to the left of the pressman who is to the left. When the "Rounce" was turned, the "Spit" turned, pulling the "Girts" which in turn moved the plank gliding on "Cramp-irons" or slides.

Under the plank is a square frame or "Coffin" holding a polished stone on which the form is laid. On the "Coffin" are three frames; "Tympan # 1, Tympan # 2 and Frisket." The outer Tympan is hinged to the Coffin. Both are cover­ed with parchment and blankets placed between the two. The Frisket is hinged to the Tympan, and covered with a paper cut (or masked as we say today) to permit printing of the desired paper area, but protect the remainder. The paper sheet goes between the Frisket and the Outer Tympan.

The printing process on such a press is as follows: 1. The parchment covering the Outer Tympan is wet to even or equalize the impression. 2. Blankets are added. 3. The Second Tympan is added to keep the blankets from slipping. 4. The sheet of paper goes on the Tympan sheet. 5. The Frisket is turned down upon the sheet to keep it clean and to keep it from slipping. 6. Tympans are put on the form. 7. The Rounce is turned, moving the form with its 300 pound stone under the platten. 8. The bar from the spindle is pulled down, and the platten presses blankets and paper on the type in the form.

Many aspect of early printing processes are interesting, including the search for proper inks. Here are three sets of ingredients for printing ink, found in early essays on print­ing: A. Ink is composed of nut or linseed oil, boiled and purified. It is then mixed with common resin to give tenacity, and with soap to destroy the greasiness of the oil and make the ink wash off more easily. The resulting mixture is then mixed with ground lamp black or vermillion. B. A composition made of the stones of peaches and apricots…the bones of sheep and ivory all well burnt…mixed with nut oil that has been well boiled, and ground together on a marble. C. Linseed oil, with small quantity of black rosin, mixed with lamp black and ground. Then boiled to a thick varnish, add turpentine, sometimes adding indigo or Prussian blue, and cooking to a thickness of molasses or tar.

As shown in the press illustration, ink was applied to the type form by "ink balls," but there are also references to hand rollers made of glue and molasses, or of glue and honey. The method is not revealed.

By 1790 there were three distinct types of printing. I. Common or letter-press printing was from moveable type letters, for books, treatises etc. The letters were individual pieces and in relief in the type metal. 2. Roller or Rolling­ press printing used copper plates engraved into the metal with the design, and this was for the reproduction of pictures. 3. Calico printing as it was called was from wood blocks cut with the design in relief. The printing was really stamping on calicoes, linens etc., with bird designs and similar illustra­tive patterns. Not many years later, fostered by the creation and development of the rotary press, a 4th type was added. Stereotype printing, using a metal stereo or casting from the original material. Of the four, letter-press printing was by far the most important to the citizens of Colonial America and this almost forgotten tribute to it is interesting….

"Letter-press printing is the most curious, and deserves the most particular notice; for to it are owing chiefly our deliverance from ignorance and error, the progress of learning, the revival of the sciences, the numberless improvements in arts, which without this noble invention would have been either lost to mankind, or confined to the knowledge of a few."

In considering the many phases of printing in Colonial America it is easy to lose sight of the vision and courage which was demonstrated by the men who formed the printing industry in this country. It was in 1638 that John Harvard founded the first university library in this country, the same year that the first press in North America was set up by Dayle, also at Cambridge, Mass. The first publication was "The Freeman's Oath," the first piece in book form "Pierce's Almanac" for 1639, the earliest surviving specimen of North American book printing, Eliot's "Ba7 Psalm Book" dated 1640

In 1685 Bradford, from England, set up the first press in Philadelphia, the city which was the center of printing development for Colonial America for the next 100 years. At Germantown in Pennsylvania, in the year 1690, Rittenhouse set up the first American paper mill, probably in partnership with Bradford. As a matter of fact, American-made paper was available to Colonial printers before American made presses or type. Type was actually the acute problem for the early print shop. It was brought 2nd-hand from England. Often it was poor. Always it was expensive. Often a printing shop would have two presses, one for the local news sheet and one for job work, yet the value of the 2nd hand type would exceed the value of all the printer's other possessions.

England's Non-Importation Proceedings forced the Americans to provide their own presses and type. By 1769 the American printing industry really began standing on its own feet for in that year Isaac Doolittle of New Haven built a mahogany press for William Goddard of Philadelphia, and in the same year Abel Buell and in 1770 Christopher Sower were casting type, including "every stage of the process from the blank punch to the finished letter." In 1775 a Phila­delphia newspaper the "Pennsylvania Mercury " was printed entirely of 'native' type, and in that same year also in Phila­delphia the printing house of Story and Humphrey advertised a book "Impenetrable Secret " printed with "type, paper and ink manufactured in the Province." As the press "was also American-built, this was actually the first All-American book.

Most of the American printers were good craftsmen, and equaled the quality of English presses in the work they put out. William Goddard a printer at various times from Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Maryland excelled in the use of type ornament. The Dobson Encyclopedia from which an illustration has been reproduced here, was a monu­mental work in 21 volumes, excellent in every aspect, and something to be marveled at when one realizes it is an 18th century publication!

It was really was an amazing growth that Printing went through in America. In 1789 the State of Pennsylvania was producing 7000 reams of paper in a total of 48 mills and there were 32 more paper mills scattered from Maine to Georgia. Much of this was of course quite ordinary paper for news­papers and job work with the finer papers still imported from Holland or England, but it was a heroic start. The type founding house of Bunny and Ronaldson in Philadelphia had the names of over 100 different American printers on its books between the years 1796 and 1801, and they represent­ed colonies all along the coastline. By 1800 America was really independent of England for her presses.

So much for the mechanical and historical side of Print­ing in Colonial America. What were the forces behind it?

On the European Continent and in England, printing had gone through its days of glory, and had in roughly 1637 reached its low point. That year England, to suppress litera­ture which was felt to be causing seditious thinking in the masses, reduced the number of type founders to four; of printers to 23. For years those in power considered the print­ed word dangerous and evil. When he ascended the English throne in 1685, King James II sent instructions to Governor Dongan in New York as follows: " ... and for as much as great inconvenience may arise by the liberty of printing within our Province of New York; you are to provide by all necessary orders that no person keep any press for printing, nor that any book, pamphlet, or other matters whatsoever be printed without your special leave and license first obtained."

Sir William Berkeley, Governor of Virginia remarked, "But, I thank God, there are no free school nor printing, and I hope we shall not have these hundred years for learning has brought disobedience and heresy, and sects into the world and printing has divulged them, and libels against the government. God keep us from both."

These feelings were far from the feelings of the colonist however. The backers of the colony in which he lived and toiled may have been business men, looking for profit. He the individual colonist was looking for freedom. What is more, in America there were no big cultural centers such as London. Self-contained colonies had their own provincial capitals. As individuals and groups afar from the governing bodies to which they felt small allegiance, the colonists reached for intellectual and moral freedom. They recognized in the printed word an opportunity for two things ... first a practical and utilitarian device of great value; second a device with spiritual force. The Colonial press of America did not give us literary accomplishment … it gave us a record of its actions and its thoughts. Publications from the early presses fall into quite definite classes:

Records (Assembly proceedings etc.) Forms (Ship's papers, warrants etc.) Newspapers Advertising Sheets Almanacs Handbooks (Ready Reckoner etc.) Sermons (New England primarily)

Note that a poem, an essay or a historical piece was an excep­tion. The press of Colonial America was not a literary press! However, the colonists were mentally active, if not literary, and they saw in the printed word a vehicle for the transmission of ideas. Individuals later to become American Statesmen were legislators and they encouraged the printed record of their remarks. The American printing industry became alive and vital; it grew and prospered, because it was essentially an integral part of the political and commercial life of the colonies. Things that are integral parts of politics and commerce at the same time ... they are the ones that flourish and this did. There were Parliamentary Press Restriction; Acts, laid down by England, which though effective in Eng­land were not enforced in America. The enforcement was up to the Governor of the colony, and though Governors and printers differed as to what was fit to print, and though there was altercation and dispute, it was rare that a printer was forbidden to print what he felt it best to print.

Actually the printing industry had been in action 50 years before it had its first genuine. newspaper, though it had in report and pamphlet form been recording the acts of the Executive and the Judiciary for years. Printing in America grew because it did not depend upon the backing of the art patron, it was not the tool of the ruler. It was the positive free declaration and record of what the colonist thought and did and hoped and planned ... things that justify their place in print!

printing press 1798

Dobson's plate CCCCXV in its entirety.


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