Hand Printing Presses of the [Nineteenth] Century

Excerpted from The Chronicle Vol. III no. 17, October 1948

by Glover A. Snow

Not much has been written or published about hand and treadle printing presses of the nineteenth century, altho their introduction had a profound effect on American life, and thousands of people either used or were well acquainted with them.

Most of us are familiar with pictures of the old Washington hand press, or various similar machines. One of the predecessors of the Washington appeared in 1939 on a postage stamp commemorating the three hundredth anniversary of the first printing press in America. This general type of machine – if it can be called that – was, up to 1800, the only kind of printing press available to a printer, whether he hap­pened to be a newspaper publisher or general practi­tioner. As a matter of fact, he was usually both in those days.

Early in the century, however, the printing press, along with other machines, received the attention of numerous inventors, and there began to be a decided difference in the appearance of presses used for different kinds of printing. While presses for news­papers, magazines and books started to become big­ger and more complicated almost immediately, so that more pages could be printed at a time, and faster, it was realized that job printers received a lot of orders for small work – cards, stationery, hand­bills, and the like, which could best be handled on machines no larger than they had been in the past. Besides, the average printer had no mechanical power available, and was obliged to use muscular effort, either hand or foot. The bigger the machine, the more difficult to keep going at a sustained speed, so presses of small and medium size were in great de­mand.

In addition to foot power jobbers, all kinds of which were marketed until George Gordon produced one in 1852 which more or less stabilized their design, there were a lot of hand operated machines – often called “amateur” presses, probably for want of a better description – which found ready sale and use among not only the youthful element of the popula­tion, but stores, factories, home shops, and by printers themselves.

“Mrs. Cowper’s Parlour Printing Press” appeared in England at least as early as 1839, and I have seen a book of instructions, unfortunately without pic­tures or address, but dated 1844, of “The Portable . Printing Office, with Plain Directions for its use, to Allow Everyone to be His Own Printer.” However, the first press to make any decided impression in this country was the Lowe, in 1856, which received a sil­ver medal at the fair of the American Institute in the Crystal Palace, New York, 1857. This press had one peculiarity, not found in any other press built before or since – a conical roller which was used to squeeze the paper against the type and give the printed im­pression. The only possible virtue this might have would be in reducing the space occupied by the press.

The full operation consisted in placing the type form in the chase or frame, laying it face up on the bed of the press, using a hand roller to ink the type, placing a sheet of paper over the type, and bringing the conical roller around over the paper to make the impression. More or less squeeze could be obtained by turning up or down the nuts which held the cylin­der to the post on which it swung. The first Lowe presses had a wooden cylinder, which later gave place to cast iron.

The Adams Cottage Press, which was widely used during the Civil War by armies in the field, hospitals, camps and on ships of the Navy, employed a straight cylinder instead of a conical one. This cylinder was fixed, and the type form, previously inked and cov­ered with a sheet of paper (as on the Lowe) was pulled under the roller by means of a crank handle. This press not only took the place of present day standard printing machines, but of necessity did the work which nowadays is given to stencil duplicators,, mimeographs and other such devices.

During the Civil War a modification of the Adams machine was brought out, on which the crank was geared to the roller as well as the press bed, and called the Army. Army presses were made and sold as late as 1906, but the vast majority of them were built in the sixties, seventies and eighties. They were used not only for job printing, but also to get out small town weekly newspapers.

While the Adams and the Army presses were fill­ing an important need, other inventors had their own ideas about the proper way to print small work, and in the year 1869 Benjamin 0. Woods, of Boston, made his bid for the business with the Novelty, a press which for about ten years was the leader in its field-with chase or frame sizes from 5 x 7 inches to 10-3/4 x 20. Like the Army and Adams Cottage, the type was inked by hand, the ink having been previ­ously spread out on the horizontal plate at the top, from which it was transferred to the type by a hand roller (brayer). The paper to be printed was placed on the platen (plate) opposite the chase. The user brought his foot down on the treadle, which was fastened by a rod to the toggle, thus- supplying the closing operation and squeeze. Adjustment for more or less impression was supplied by thumbscrews which moved the axis of the platen backward and forward.

The writer has a Lowe press, and a Novelty. Com­pared to present day self inking hand presses ( the simplest printing devices now available) they are curious contraptions, but untold thousands of jobs were laboriously run off on them in their day.

Some of these and other machines which were made about this time may be seen at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, and also at the Edison Institute in Dearborn, Michigan.

The Lowe and the Novelty were the presses which first introduced the youth of America to printing. Following them came a number of machines, first hand inkers and then self-inkers, which, aided by exhibits at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, 1876, made the seventies and eighties the golden age of small printers and amateur editors. The number of different kinds made during this period is, however, too great to include in this article, and requires a separate chapter. This will be forthcoming if readers evince enough interest in these small printing presses which many of their fathers – and grandfathers – used.

1 thought on “Hand Printing Presses of the [Nineteenth] Century”

Comments are closed.