This is the third in a series of posts that will appear throughout the year.
The process of researching wooden common presses for the sake of building a historically accurate reconstruction is an intensive one, to say the least. While most college students would have spent their Spring Breaks relaxing and goofing off, some of my teammates and I spent our break traveling through New England visiting printing presses. That’s not to say the trip wasn’t fun, but it was intense. We saw four presses in as many days and as many states. Three were original presses from the early eighteenth century (or possibly the late seventeenth, because the provenance of some isn’t clear), and one was a reconstruction made in 1950 from a design by Ralph Green, an engineer and amateur historian of printing presses.
Before I got into the details of the trip, I should announce the newest addition to our team: Daniel Krull, a Museum Studies major here at RIT. While Ferris Nicolais and Veronica Hebbard were on their own vacations, Randall, Daniel, and I embarked on our field trip. To see these presses, we visited their four stewards, who were, in the order of our itinerary, the Newport Historical Society of Newport, RI; The Printing Office of Edes & Gill in Boston, MA; the Exeter Historical Society of Exeter, NH; and the Vermont Historical Society in Montpelier, VT. Without the gracious and accommodating staffs at these four institutions, the trip wouldn’t have been possible.
On Saturday, we arrived in Newport to visit the James Franklin Press at the Newport Historical Society. Registrar Bridget Sullivan and Associate Curator Jennifer Robinson were there to meet us and assist while we examined the press. The NHS museum in Newport is housed in the historic Old Brick Market, a national historic landmark built in the 1760s. The museum currently houses the James Franklin Press, on loan to the NHS from the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association since the 1990s.
James Franklin may not be as famous as his younger brother Benjamin, but he was an important colonial printer. In Boston, he established the Courant, a controversial newspaper. He was imprisoned briefly for his writing in 1722, and finally left Boston in 1727. When he moved to Newport, his press became the first in the colony. After his death in 1735, his wife Ann continued to operate his printing shop.1
Contrary to what some sources may say,2 the press is not a Ramage press. James Franklin brought it to the colonies in 1717, but it likely predates that trip by a few years. It’s tricky to assign an exact date to a common press, because each one was made as a one-off, but it isn’t unreasonable to think the press could have been made as early as the late seventeenth century. A few details give an idea of its age. Most obvious are the guide boards along the carriage, which would have been eliminated in later common presses.3
Another clue to the press’ age lies in the design of its hose. Unlike a later press, such as the Roy Press we examined back in February, the hose is completely unclad. It is bare wood, rather than covered in iron or brass, and is guided by a till that also has no lining. From an engineering perspective, this is an inferior arrangement, because wood-on-wood sliding will create more wear than metal-on-metal, not even to mention the difference in friction. As wood expands and contracts seasonally, there would be a higher chance for the hose to bind within the till.
We only had a two-hour window to spend with the press, so we worked quickly. We left with the critical dimensions we felt we need for the project. Newport has a rich colonial history, and a lot of that landscape survives today. At the opposite end of Washington Square from Brick Market is the Old Colony House, the former meeting place of the colonial legislature. Also worth seeing in Newport was the Bellevue Avenue Historic District, which features mansions built in the late-nineteenth century by wealthy families like the Vanderbilts and Astors.
We spent the next day in Boston, and walked the Freedom Trail from the Boston Common to the Old North Church. The 2.5-mile trail runs through downtown Boston past a collection of historically significant sites, such as the site of the Boston Massacre and Paul Revere’s house. Next to the Old North Church, the oldest surviving church in the city, is the Printing Office of Edes & Gill. The office is staffed by some fantastic interpreters who helped us examine the common press they use there.
The press was constructed between 1949 and 1950 by Ralph Green, an engineer and amateur printing historian.4 Green designed the press based up on his research from the previous few decades, and it is representative of the period 1720–1750. The press was used at Colonial Williamsburg until the 1990s, when it was transferred to Boston. In many ways, the work done to create this press parallels what our project is attempting to do today. Except for a few minor details, the press is a faithful reconstruction.5
Examining the press gave us the chance to see a “new” common press without centuries of wear and damage. For any who may be wondering, the press was incredibly easy to operate. Pulling the bar offered little resistance, and it wasn’t any harder to use than an iron hand press. Aside from being a two-pull press,6 operating the press followed the same work flow as usual. Even after studying these presses nearly full-time for the past few months, nothing beats using the “real deal” to understand what it takes to use one. By the end of the year, my team mates and I will be able to use our own.
Monday found us in Exeter, New Hampshire at the Exeter Historical Society. Barbara Rimkunas, the curator at the EHS, met us and gave us a tour of the building. Since the 1990s, the EHS has been housed in the former Exeter Public Library. We set to work measuring and documenting the details of the Robert Luist Fowle Press, from the very early eighteenth century, held there. Fowle was a Tory, and strongly opposed American independence from Great Britain. When hired to print currency for the fledgling government of New Hampshire, he also produced counterfeit bills in an attempt to debase the value of the money.
His press was used as recently as the 1950s (and possibly even more recently) at Old Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, Massachusetts. It was only in the 1990s that the press was finally moved back to Exeter. It held a few surprises for us. The most obvious difference between this press and others we’ve studied is in the hose. Unlike the James Franklin Press, with its bare wood hose, or the Roy Press and its clad hose, the Fowle Press only has corners of iron, and the till is brass lined only in the corners. The iron isn’t cladding, either; it’s a structural element of the hose.These are thick bars of iron set into grooves at the corners of the hose, and the bands of iron at the top and bottom of the hose hold them in place. The hose hooks that suspend the platen are actually part of these corners of iron, not part of the bottom iron band as on other presses.
The other major defining detail of this press is its style of cramp iron. They aren’t iron at all; they are cast brass. Considering the age of the press, we expected to find ten separate cramp irons. Instead, there were only eight. One of the cramp irons was detached from the press, and we had the chance to photograph it in detail.
As Barbara reminded us before we left, “All history starts local.” So much of our research for this project relies upon the work of local historical societies, and we are constantly reminded of the need for these organizations. Exeter is a town full of revolutionary history, and we spent time exploring after our visit at the EHS. The Old Townhouse in Exeter was the meeting place for the state government throughout the American Revolution. Exeter was the site of two important firsts, and was the site where both the first state constitution and first declaration of independence from Great Britain (declared June 11, 1776) were adopted.7
The next day, we drove to Montpelier, Vermont, to the Vermont Historical Society museum. After accidentally going to the VHS headquarters in Barre (anyone interested in visiting the VHS should make sure to go to the right location), we found our way to the museum, where curator Jackie Calder assisted us in examining the Dresden Press and the files associated with it. For quite some time, the press was believed to have belonged to Stephen Daye, and although this was disproved in the 1950s, the confusion persists even today. Jackie asked that I be explicit, so let me be clear: there is no evidence to support the Stephen Daye association, and the VHS now refers to it as the Dresden Press.
To a certain extent, presses from the same period should be similar, but the similarities between the Dresden Press and the Fowle Press are uncanny. Both presses are approximately the same age, and have the same major defining details. The hose of the Dresden Press was constructed in the same manner as the Fowle Press, and had the same arrangement of brass cramp irons. Unfortunately, the press was the subject of several very destructive restorations throughout the twentieth century, and the till, carriage, and forestay of the press were not original, among other parts that were replaced in the nineteenth century.
Clinton Sisson and Elizabeth Harris examined the press and wrote a document for the VHS in April 1978 recording their observations. They noted how unusual the cramp irons and hose were, saying they had not observed those details on any other press. It seems they never examined the Fowle Press. This document, however, shed some light on the mystery of the hose’s unusual design. It had an illustration from Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie showing a hose constructed in a very similar manner.
Montpelier was the last stop on our tour through New England, and we shared a collective sigh of relief at the end of our visit, no longer having to worry about getting from place to place. Although Montpelier has the smallest population of any state capital in the U.S., its size made it easy to explore after we left the museum. The city boasts wonderful architecture and fantastic views along the Winooski River. We were there during the annual Green Mountain Film Festival, but didn’t have the chance to see any films.
In the weeks that we’ve been back at school, our team has been organizing everything we documented during the trip. We need to have a full design for our common press before the end of the semester, so that we can begin ordering materials and contracting some of the craftsmen who will be helping us make it in the fall when we return from summer break. What we have right now is a clear idea of what our press will look like, and what it will represent. What we are currently designing will be an English-style common press representative of the period from 1770-1790. Of all the replica presses we’ve found information on, none are of presses from this period; most would be representative of early-eighteenth century presses.
There is a need for more information on the late-style common press. Importantly, these decades represent the last years of the true common presses. By 1800, Adam Ramage had begun making his wooden presses, and Charles Stanhope, 3rd Earl Stanhope, had invented the iron hand press. Thus, this period represents the final iteration of common presses before their demise. Our hope for this project is that it would make another option available to anyone hoping to make a common press today.
- 1 For more on James Franklin, see the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame.
- 2 State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations at the End of the Century: A History, Volume 2, Edward Field Mason Publishing Company, 1902, p.564
- 3 See my second post in this series.
- 4 Green wrote three books on the subject of printing presses, collected in The Works of Ralph Green (1981). Included in the collection is On Making a Printing Press (1955), in which he describes the process without including any plans for his design.
- 5 There are ten cramp irons on this press, and the four end cramps have shoulders on them. It is possibly an intermediate style invented between the two styles I describe in my second post in the series. Having examined Green’s papers at the College of William and Mary, I did not see evidence to support this design. There is only one mention in his papers of this style of cramp iron, but he had no photographs or measurements to support it. It may be a misinterpretation of decades’ worth of wear on the cramp irons of another press held by Colonial Williamsburg. I plan to investigate this possibility.
- 6 A common press, unlike later iron presses, is a two-pull press. The platen is only half the size of the printable area, and the bed must be repositioned and the bar pulled twice to print a full sheet.
- 7 See Early Exeter History 1638-1887, by Edward Chase, Jr.