The Stinehour Press: Half a Century of Fine Printing in the Northeast Kingdom
Excerpted from The Chronicle Vol. 62 no. 3, September 2009
by Elton W. Hall
On the morning of July 15, 2008, I arose early and drove north from South Dartmouth, Massachusetts, 225 miles to The Stinehour Press in Lunenburg, Vermont. The purpose of the trip was to purchase and to encourage others to purchase as much as possible of the outstanding collection of metal type assembled by fellow EAIA member Roderick Stinehour during the course of about a half-century of his ownership of the Press. I had recently learned that the type and related material were all destined for the smelter.
As a business, The Stinehour Press did not fall into the time frame that normally encompasses EAIA interests, but the work it did is representative of a craft and manufacturing tradition that goes back to the middle of the fifteenth century in Mainz, Germany, and Johannes Gutenburg’s monumental printing of the Bible from movable type. That trade was brought to the New World first by the Spanish colonists in Mexico and in 1639 to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the first press in British North America was established by Stephen Daye. From then on, printing proliferated in colonial America until by the end of the eighteenth century there were printing shops dispersed throughout the thirteen colonies and further to the west. (1)
Owning a printing shop was a struggle throughout the colonial period. Essential to survival was building up sufficient business to make a living. Fortunately, Americans were news-hungry people, and many cities and towns in America had newspapers before larger cities in England. It was almost essential for a colonial printer to publish a newspaper, which gave him a flywheel of business that he could augment by job printing for local businesses. Stationery, billheads, labels, advertisements, and notices of various kinds were his ordinary business. If he could get an appointment as printer to some level of government, then that would bring him forms and reports to print, and he might get a certain amount of book work. If the printer were successful in procuring jobs, then he had to be able to fill the orders. Printing required tools and supplies that were never readily available in the colonies: presses, type, and paper. Setting up a printing office required more capital than many other trades, and it was needed all at once.
Apprenticeship followed by a period as journey-man was the usual route to becoming a master printer. Some widows took over printing shops upon the death of their husbands. There were a number of likely young printers who got their starts under the sponsorship of Benjamin Franklin. Having made his own fortune and mark as a printer, Franklin invested in other shops in partnership with printers in whom he felt confident, providing them with some of the materials they needed to get going.
As the nineteenth century progressed, some significant advances were made in printing equipment. Beginning with Gutenberg and throughout the eighteenth century, the common press, a massive, wood-framed structure, was the standard printing press. Slow moving and cumbersome, it took a lot of tinkering and fine-t-ing to produce a uniform impression. The platen was moved by a screw, and a good pressman assisted by a good helper might produce two hundred sheets per hour. (2) In the nineteenth century as the industrial revolution warmed up and the pace of industry quickened, prin-ing equipment moved along with it. The great contribution to turning printing from a craft to an industry was Friedrich Koenig’s invention of the steam-powered cylinder press in 1811. The first edition of the London Times printed on Koenig’s machine appeared November 29, 1814, printed at the rate of eleven hundred sheets per hour. At the same time, ingenious inventors were developing iron-framed hand presses with various mechanical improvements in the means of applying pressure to the platen. In about 1860, Lord Stanhope in England built a press the frame of which was one massive iron casting. George Clymer of Philadelphia built an iron-framed press with a series of compound levers to exert pressure on the platen. Called the Columbian, his press was introduced in 1813. In 1829, Samuel Rust patented his Washington press, which offered a number of improvements in the frame and a powerful toggle to move the platen. It became very successful and was acquired by R. Hoe & Co., a major printing press manufacturer in New York, which also produced a line of circular saw blades. (3) For the rest of the century, there was continuous improvement to printing presses and related attachments and equipment. The large printing machines were used for newspapers, periodicals, and some books but had far more capacity than was wanted for most printing jobs of the day. Consequently, hand presses, smaller cylinder presses, and platen presses remained in use for jobbing and most book work. (4)
The other essential material unique to printing was the metal type that bore the reverse image of each character in each size and style that was to be printed. Procuring type was always a problem in the colonial period. It had to be imported, was expensive, and delivery took a long time, especially if there had been a shipwreck. Printers had to do the best they could, often with an inadequate supply of badly worn type. Abel Buell of Killingly, Connecticut, was the first to cast type successfully in America in 1769. A number of others made sporadic efforts at type founding, but through the end of the eighteenth century only Archibald Binney and James Ronaldson of Philadelphia were able to give prompt and regular service to printers in need of type. By the end of the eighteenth and throughout the nineteenth century, various mechanics worked at typecasting machines with ever increasing success until type became plentiful in quantities and styles that would have amazed Franklin. (5) The American Type Founders Company catalogue of 1906 comprises more than eleven hundred pages of type and related material.
The advent of machine composition in the form of Linotype and Monotype was another great step in the industrialization of printing. Texts of virtually any length could be set as fast as they could be typed—or key-boarded—into the machine, and when the press run was completed, what had once been the extremely laborious task of distributing the type into cases was accomplished by simply melting it down to be re-cast into the next job. Advances in papermaking also helped move it along, so that by the turn of the twentieth century, printing with all its many supporting trades including the manufacture of presses, tools, supplies, and equipment, punch cutting, type founding, plate making, manufacture of inks and rollers, stereotyping, and so on constituted one of the largest industries in the country. So great and diverse was the demand for printed matter that the industry operated at several levels. There were the great printing houses with many steam presses that turned out big editions of books and periodicals, such as DeVinne in New York, Riverside, University, and Athenaeum in Boston, and many others. But there still existed the ubiquitous need for small job presses to print business forms, stationery, announcements, cards, and the myriad of other items that individuals and organizations required in their day-to-day operations. So every city and most towns had one or more small-job printers still setting type by hand and printing with hand- or treadle-operated presses.
With the growth of the industry—accompanied by the proliferation of printers, type founders, and typographers driven by competition and the Victorian taste for eclectic ornament and extremes in its application—many of the classic typefaces became debased, and new ones were introduced in which type designers tried to outdo one another in the production of elaborate if not very legible type. Some printers seemed bent on displaying as many different faces on a page as possible. In opposition to this trend arose the arts and crafts movement, which promoted the revival of earlier styles in all areas of artisanry including typography and printing. A new figure appeared on the scene, the scholar-printer, rep-resented by Theodore Low DeVinne in New York and Daniel Berkeley Updike in Boston, who studied and revived many of the classic type faces of the past and advocated a simple, clear, uncluttered typographic style. Proponents of these ideas formed organizations such as The Society of Printers for the Advancement of the Art of Printing in Boston. In addition to fostering the improvement of printing by commercial presses, these developments gave rise to private presses dedicated to printing practiced as a fine art. Thus this rich-textured tradition of printing in America progressed through the first half of the twentieth century. In 1948 a young man appeared on the scene in the remote outpost of Whitefield, New Hampshire, fresh out of the Navy, trained as a naval aviator, newly wed, and seeking a way to make a living (Figure 1). His name was Roderick D. Stinehour, a name that would become synonymous with the highest standards of printing in America, and for that matter, the world.
Separated from active duty in the Navy in July of 1947, Stinehour (known to his friends and colleagues as Rocky) returned home, and with his pilot training took a job with the Connecticut Valley Air Service. He soon married Elizabeth Maguire, but upon return from their honeymoon learned that the Air Service had closed for lack of business, and he was out of a job. Desirous of remaining in the North Country, the Stinehours considered the narrow range of options the region offered for employment. Among the possibilities was printing, which appealed to Rocky because he had been interested in design and drawing as a child and liked the idea of producing something practical and useful that involved work with both head and hand. He began making the rounds of all the printers in the area, but none were able to offer any entry-level positions. He had almost given up when a friend at a bank in Whitefield suggested he go across the Connecticut River to Lunenburg, Vermont, and call on a farmer-printer named Ernest Bisbee, who did occasional job printing for the bank. Rocky did so. Bisbee took a liking to him and agreed to take him on as an apprentice. After his first day on the job in February, 1948, Rocky knew that that was what he wanted to make his career.
The Bisbee Press was a typical, small, country job printing shop of the early-twentieth century (Figures 2, 3, and 4). Bisbee had started it in 1927 to supplement his farm income, thereby carrying on a great old New England tradition where farmers added a second trade to increase their winter activity and revenue. The Bisbee Press occupied a single room in a farm building and was equipped with two Golding hand presses, a Kluge, and Miehle Vertical. There was a variety of generally undistinguished type in relatively small quantities. If Benjamin Franklin had walked in, he would have instantly recognized and understood much of what he saw in the shop, including the smell of printers’ ink mingled with the smell of cow manure and chickens scratching around the yard. There was no running water, and the shop was heated by coal and wood stoves. The product was not much different from much of Franklin’s work: business forms, notices, labels, announcements, and cards.
By the summer of that first year, Rocky had developed a good working relationship with Mr. Bisbee, while realizing that there was a good deal more to learn about the “black art” than Bisbee could teach him. Accordingly, he entered Dartmouth College and studied with Ray Nash, a highly regarded professor of the graphic arts and history of printing. Under the tutelage of Nash, Rocky acquired knowledge of and appreciation for the classic typefaces of the past, the printed book as a work of art as well as a useful product, and the understanding that printing could be practiced as an art as well as a trade. While at Dartmouth, he worked part time at a local printing shop and kept in regular communication with Bisbee, working with him during vacations. He learned about the two methods of machine composition—Linotype and Monotype—and eventually persuaded Bisbee to purchase Monotype equipment. In February 1950, Ernest Bisbee died. Upon graduation that spring, Rocky hastened back to Lunenburg to carry on the jobs at the press that had been accumulating since the proprietor’s death. With cooperation of Mrs. Bisbee and the encouragement of Professor Nash, he was able to buy the Bisbee Press and the farm. With his wife Elizabeth to help him, he carried on the job printing business while planning and preparing for what he wanted to achieve with the press: the production of high-quality books.
While Ernest Bisbee had yielded to Rocky’s urgent pleas for Monotype equipment, he was about as interested in operating it himself as the oldest generation of today is interested in acquiring computer skills. So the machine had languished, neglected in a back room. Happily, Rocky’s brother, Laurence, was discharged from active duty in the Navy and returned home looking for employment (Figures 5 and 6). He was put right to work at the Press, but he soon went off to the Rochester Institute of Technology to learn the intricacies of the Monotype caster. It has been said that at the time of its first appearance, the Monotype caster and related equipment was one of the most complicated machines ever devised (Figures 7 and 8). It was not to be mastered by do-it-yourself, on-the-job training. Moreover, for the purposes of The Stinehour Press, it had to be run well to produce good-looking type and efficiently so the business could survive.
The Northeast Kingdom, as that part of Vermont is known, is a nursery for practical, mechanically inclined people. Most inhabitants had to keep farm or woodworking machinery and vehicles of various kinds running, so it was easy for Rocky to find help right at hand as the business grew. Harwood Wentzell was the first non-Stinehour to join the Press. Previously employed as foreman of a casket factory, he was prepared not only to learn the duties of pressman, but to take care of all manner of carpentry and related work as the farm buildings gradually metamorphosed into a printing office (Figure 9).
There were important differences between a job printing shop, which the Bisbee Press had been, and a scholarly printing office, which The Stinehour Press was to become. A job shop turned out printed matter, suitable to its utilitarian purpose, as efficiently and inexpensively as possible. Little effort was spent on design, and overstatement was more common than refined elegance in the choice of typefaces and their arrangement. If there were a spelling error, a missing punctuation, or a letter from the wrong font, it was nothing to be too concerned about. Few would notice, and those who did probably wouldn’t care. But for the work that Rocky hoped to do—printing scholarly texts of lasting importance and the journals of learned organizations—it was essential to produce printing that was correct in every detail as well as handsomely designed. He needed on his staff someone who could assure their product had those qualities as well as take a hand in the mechanical work of the press. One day in May, 1954, C. Freeman Keith came through the door seeking employment. By the end of that day, Rocky knew he had found the one he had long sought to help realize his goal.
Freeman Keith had graduated from Harvard College with a degree in Classics (Figure 10). He and his wife headed north seeking a simple life, working with their hands. He took a job at the Leahy Press in Burlington, Vermont, with the same experience at the end of his first day on the job that Rocky found with Bisbee. He knew he had found his calling. After learning the rudiments of the trade with Leahy, Freeman heard of The Stinehour Press and thought that there he could do the kind of work he aspired to. He remained there as pressman, editor, and eventually vice president, to the end of his career.
While a student of Ray Nash, Rocky met a number of persons of eminence in the world of scholarly printing. Philip Hofer of the Department of Printing and Graphic Arts at Harvard University, and Harold Hugo of The Meriden Gravure Company, who had pioneered in the development of 300-line screen offset printing, were among the first (Figure 11). They provided Rocky with many jobs and referred him to others. Walter Muir Whitehill, director and librarian of the Boston Athenaeum, was very much interested in good printing and had connections to a large number of publishing organizations. He was pleased to help spread the news of an up-and-coming young printer in northern Vermont who produced work to exacting standards.
The name of the Stinehour operation went through a number of changes during its lifetime. For the first few years of operation, they retained the name of Bisbee Press for job work, while using The North Country Press for book and journal production. Upon learning that there was already a North Country Press in Saint Albans, Rocky changed the name to The Stinehour Press in 1953. In 1956, The Stinehour Press was incorporated, and the following year the name of Bisbee and most of the job work was dropped enabling the Press to focus on the high-quality printing that had been Rocky’s goal. Of course, it always continued a small amount of job work in service to the community, for old friends, or the occasional odd project that struck their fancy. During much of the 1970s, Rocky owned and co-published The Coös County Democrat, following in the old tradition of early American printers like Benjamin Franklin and Isaiah Thomas. For that and other things, they had another name: North Country Publishing.
The early association with The Meriden Gravure Company became a long-lasting, symbiotic relationship before culminating in merger (Figures 12 and 13). While Meriden had achieved a world-wide reputation for the outstanding quality of its images, it relied on others for typographic composition and design. Stinehour was interested in typography and letterpress printing but had not developed the capability of printing illustrations beyond simple half-tones. Thus, the two businesses complemented one another and collaborated on many important jobs until their merger in 1977. The world of museum publications and exhibition catalogs had already merged the two companies through references to a publication being “a Meriden Stinehour job” —understanding that to mean a publication of the highest quality—long before the business decision was made. For the first year of the merger, the firm was known as Meriden-Stinehour, Inc. The following year, it was named the Meriden-Stinehour Press, which it remained until 1989 when the plant in Meriden was closed, and all operations were consolidated in Lunenburg. Meriden was dropped from the name, which reverted to The Stinehour Press.
It did not take The Stinehour Press long to begin producing substantial books of well over a hundred pages in editions up to hundreds and even thousands of copies. It rapidly developed a distinguished client list, including several departments in Harvard University, The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Boston Athenaeum, The Pierpont Morgan Library, Alfred Knopf, the Winterthur Museum, The American Academy of Arts and Sciences, The Mount Vernon Ladies Association, and many university presses and historical societies. Stinehour published its own quarterly journal, Printing & Graphic Arts, devoted to the interests of those involved with the book arts (Figure 14). It almost immediately achieved worldwide circulation with subscribers in almost every continent. It carried the name and an example of Stinehour work wherever it went, producing much business for the Press. It is noteworthy that libraries and organizations devoted to the book arts, including the Department of Printing and Graphic Arts at Harvard, The Typophiles and Grolier Club in New York, The Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp, and many others used to producing excellent publications, increasingly gave their business to Stinehour. Every conceivable department of knowledge is represented within the production of the Press, and its books are to be found in every important research library in the country (including the old Early American Industries Association library).
By 1966, The Stinehour Press had achieved the volume of business and stability to justify a major investment in composing machines (Figure 15). Rocky traveled to England to meet with C. G. Turner, sales manager of the Monotype Corporation in Salfords. There were several reasons for shifting from the American Lanston Monotype machines to the English. The English machines offered greater productivity through their newly developed matrix cases that held thirty-four more characters than the Lanston cases, an important advantage in setting scholarly texts that required accented letters. Development of the “constant height mould” meant greater accuracy in casting the type. The keyboards and casters were more refined in engineering and machining, which made them more reliable in operation than the American machines, an important factor when working in the remote location of Lunenburg. This superior equipment, Rocky said, “was accompanied by the world’s most desired and admired type designs for book composition and typography. I wanted only the best for use at The Stinehour Press, and by 1966 I felt I had the means to obtain the best” (6) (Figures 16 and 17).
The work of the press and the facilities for its accomplishment attracted a remarkably talented staff (Figure 18). Young men and a few women who were interested in practicing the arts of the book and appreciated the rural, north country life moved there to sharpen their skills while doing the work to which they were devoted. Some remained for a few years; others made it their life. Many of those associated with the Press became highly respected graphic designers, printers, or publishers. The practical experience and immersion in the great classical traditions of letter forms, typography and printing gave many the background they needed to become leaders in the rapidly accelerating developments that were to change the practice of printing during the last quarter of the twentieth century more dramatically than the accumulated developments since Gutenburg. Joseph Blumenthal, another great scholar-printer and owner of The Spiral Press in New York wrote, “The Stinehour Press… is at this writing the only fine press in New England with a scholarly staff (headed by C. Freeman Keith) and a plant of sufficient size to be capable of turning out substantial, well-designed books and catalogs that sustain a high degree of craftsmanship.” (7)
In 1979, Stinehour added a bindery to its other facilities enabling it to be truly a full-service operation in the production of books and journals from editorial services, copy editing, typo-graphic design and composition, on through to printing and binding. Skilled calligraphers like Stephen Harvard could draw wonderful titles, headings, and other ornaments and flourishes from which line cuts or film were made to enhance typographic designs (Figure 19). At about that time, the number of staff at Lunenburg who engaged in the prepress and letterpress work peaked at around forty. The Meriden Gravure Co. affiliation enabled them to produce the finest images available anywhere in the world, printing either in letterpress or offset lithography or a combination of both.
As offset lithography increasingly dominated the printing business in the 1960s and 1970s, an increasing amount of Stinehour’s work was the production of repro proofs of text from which screened negatives were made to be stripped up with illustrations to make offset plates. It was an expensive way to do that job, and the Press began a search for a new technology that would produce the same quality at lower cost. The Press’s first trial was with Monophoto, a process very similar to the Monotype, but with film rather than metal as output. But that system saved little time or money and had its own problems. A steady stream of optical composing equipment was being hustled onto the market without being perfected or thoroughly tested, and Stinehour found none of them satisfactory until Mergenthaler, the manufacturer of Linotype, came out with Linoterm. Those at The Stinehour Press knew they at last had something good and went for it. In 1980, the Press printed a series of type specimens offering at least seven of the new editions of some of the great types: Bembo, Baskerville, Trump Medieval, Times Roman, Sabon, Optima, and Galliard. But it wasn’t a simple change. To get the niceties it needed, Stinehour couldn’t just take the Linoterm fonts off the shelf and use them. From the output of the repro proofs to the time the sheets came off the press there were a lot of transla-tions. The proofs went to Meriden where they were photographed through a 300-line screen and burned onto a zinc plate, which then went onto the offset press. Things happened during the translations, and it took a great deal of experience, judgment, and skill to fine tune each step so that the final result would meet the Meriden-Stinehour standards. Stephen Harvard and Freeman Keith were heavily involved at Lunenburg. At Meriden, Harold Hugo and William Glick worked on the endless fussing over tiny details, and they all worked with Mergenthaler to get it all right.
The success they achieved with Linoterm was of short duration. Before the decade of the 1980s was over, the digital age was upon us, and again the Press moved ahead with a Linotronic 300. Then the Macintosh came along with rapidly improving programs for desk-top composition and design. New typefaces especially for digital composition were being created or modified from classic faces by a host of designers, among them Stephen Harvard and Lance Hidy, members of The Stinehour Press staff.
All this investment in the constantly changing technology took its financial toll on the Press. In 1989, the old Meriden Gravure Company plant on Billiard Street in Meriden was closed, and such of the equipment that was still useful, including the four-color Heidelberg Speedmaster that had performed so well for Meriden over the years, was moved to Lunenburg. Several families moved with it to continue with the Press. The consolidation increased the efficiency of the operation, but the relentless need to invest in advancing technology outstripped the ability of that technology to pay for itself before it became obsolete. In 1998, The Stinehour Press was sold to James Crean of Dublin, Ireland. Crean was able to provide capital to pay off the debts and carry on for a while, but it soon became clear that the work of The Stinehour Press did not fit into Crean’s program the way Crean thought it would. In 2002, as Crean was contemplating liquidating the Press, a group of investors came forward to buy it back and keep it going. “It is an American treasure,” declared Robert McCamant, one of the investors, “and it must be preserved.” (8) They were able to extend its life for another six years, during which the Press was able to produce many fine books including the EAIA publica-tion, A Pattern Book of Tools and Household Goods, but ultimately the group realized that the jig was up and closed the doors permanently (Figure 20).
What is especially relevant to the interests of the EAIA is that The Stinehour Press represents the culmination of a particular class of letterpress printing in America. It achieved this distinction through careful study of the means, methods, and principles that guided the craft from its beginnings five hundred years before and that were practiced by Franklin, Thomas, DeVinne, Updike, and a host of job shops and printing offices for three-and-a-half centuries in this country, adding its own experience that it had accumulated along the way. The Press was guided by a simple premise that would apply to all artisans desirous of doing their best, which Rocky expressed in a pamphlet celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Press: “The aim of The Stine-hour Press has always been to print books better than is ordinarily done—a modest goal and an attainable one.” (9) For those who use tools of any kind for any craft, one of the greatest verities was articulated by Stephen Harvard, vice-president of The Stinehour Press and one of its most brilliant designers and craftsmen: “By itself, technology offers much but solves nothing. The newest tools, like the oldest, need to be grasped firmly in an educated hand and guided by disciplined vision.” (10) These two statements, backed up by the bibliography of the first thirty years of the Press comprising 1,006 books and fifty-eight serial publications, clearly and simply declare what The Stinehour Press stood for and what it accomplished. (11)
1. One of the two best histories of printing in colonial America is The History of Printing in America by Isaiah Thomas (Worcester: Isaiah Thomas, 1810). A reprint of the second edition edited by Marcus A. McCorison was published by the Imprint Society in 1970. The other, The Colonial Printer by Lawrence C. Wroth, was published by The Grolier Club in 1931 and followed by a revised and enlarged second edition published by The Anthoensen Press in 1938. The latter was reprinted by Dover Publications in 1994.
2. The first important treatise on the art of printing was Joseph Moxon, Mechanick Exercises. Several reprints have appeared, most recently and readily available is a Dover edition.
3. American Iron Hand Presses by Stephen O. Saxe (New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Books, 1992) offers a good account of the iron hand press in America.
4. For a thorough history of the printing press see James Moran, Printing Presses (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1978).
5. Typefounding in America 1787-1825 by Rollo G. Silver (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1965) provides the best account of the beginnings of type-founding in America.
6. From Roderick Stinehour’s unpublished talk given to The Society of Printers. Most of the information on the development of the Press was obtained in a series of conversations between the author and Roderick Stinehour during 2007.
7. Joseph Blumenthal, The Printed Book in America (Boston: David R. Godine, 1977), 126.
8. Conversation between McCamant and the author at The Stinehour Press, August 2003.
9. Roderick D. Stinehour, Twenty-five Books, Twenty-five Years of The Stinehour Press (Hanover: Dartmouth College Library, 1975).
10. Vision and Revision, (Meriden, Connecticut, and Lunenburg, Vermont: Meriden-Stinehour Incorporated, 1977).
11. David Farrell, The Stinehour Press, a Bibliographical Checklist of the First Thirty Years (Lunenburg, Vermont: Meriden-Stinehour Press, 1988).
Elton W. Hall, a frequent contributor to The Chronicle, is the former executive director of the EAIA and proprietor of The Brookside Press in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts.