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New England Hand Press Crawl

The Robert Luist Fowle Press with team mates (from left to right) Daniel Krull, Randall Paulhamus, and Seth Gottlieb.

The Robert Luist Fowle Press with teammates (from left to right) Daniel Krull, Randall Paulhamus, and Seth Gottlieb at the Exeter Historical Society.

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.


The James Franklin Press on display at the Newport Historical Society.

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.


The box hose of the press, sitting within the till. It has split along its length, and is held together at top and bottom by iron bands.

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 Ralph Green Common Press, still used daily to demonstrate the workflow of colonial printers. It has a form of type set to print the Declaration of Independence.

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


The catch of the bar can be adjusted as the bar rubs and wears the wood down. Added later, this was not part of Green’s design. Such a catch is out of place on an English common press, but is typical of those found on Blaeu-style presses in Low Country Europe.

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.


The Robert Luist Fowle Press, with ball racks on the near cheek added during its time at Old Sturbridge Village in the twentieth century, where it was used regularly.

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 hose of the Fowle Press, with four separate hose hooks running the entire length of the hose. The two-piece till has been bolted together, a feature that appears to be original.


The top of the hose, showing the hose hooks at the corners, as well as the iron band around the top holding them in place. Below this band is the garter, which secures the spindle of the press inside the hose.

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.


One of the cramp irons from the press. The bearing surface shows wear from running on one of the steel rails of the carriage.

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.


The Dresden Press in its case at the Vermont Historical Society.

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.


A front view of the Dresden Press, showing the hose and the replacement till. Interestingly, the toe of the spindle has some turned ornamental details.

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.


Plate 17 from Plates Vol. 7 (1769) of Diderot’s Encyclopédie. The hose is clearly shown in Figures 9 and 10, at the top of the plate.

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. Philip J. Weimerskirch 22 April, 2016 at 4:09 pm

    There is an 18th-century wooden hand press in the offices of the Hartford Courant in Hartford, CT. There is an excellent article about Jane Franklin, James’s widow, who ran the press after her husband died. I don’t have the reference just now. The American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, MA, has the press that belonged to Isaiah Thomas. The Providence Public Library has the Daniel Berkeley Updike Collection of Books on Printing, and Brown University has the notes on early American printing compiled by Rollo Silver. They would have been worth seeing.

    Best wishes,


  2. Phil, I wasn’t aware of the Silver Collection at Brown. I’ll look into that further as a possible source of information. We would have gone to Providence if we had the time. We chose not to see the Thomas Press at the AAS because we have a set of drawings prepared of the press, and felt we should focus on other presses. The press in Hartford is actually a later press, Ramage No. 512, and falls outside the scope of our project. There is certainly a great deal of material on printing history in this part of the country, and although our trip was by no means comprehensive, it served well for the scope of our research.


  3. The Printing museum in Nantes France, Le Musee de I’imprineries de Nantes, has a replica of Diderot’s press, which was made for the film ‘Le Libertin’. It was the only press I had seen using the long corner hooks until now, so I was delighted to see your pictures of the Fowle Press.
    The question of the till are varied, a lot of surviving presses have a split till, either bolted together or held into the cheeks by wedges, a number of drawings such as Moxon’s box hose show a solid till, yet Diderot’s has a split, so I personally think that split till was a later addition for ease of carrying out repairs etc. as for the wood against wood, seasoned Oak is very dense, so wear here would not be a problem as there would not be a lot of force created from the box hose onto the till, as the till is a guide for the box hose to keep it square, and can be lubricated by Bee’s wax. Dierot’s shows the metal clad till, and this would have no doubt been used due to the long hooks and lubricated with a little salad oil.

    I have pictures of the press and press parts if you are interested, please drop me a mail.

    Keep up the good work


  4. I’m glad you’ve mentioned “Le Libertin,” and found myself a copy to watch just so I can see the press. I’ll be sure to send you an email about your press photos. I haven’t spent much time looking at sixteenth-century (or earlier) press designs, but your assessment of the till sounds very reasonable.

    Thank you for the feedback,

  5. I hope that you noted that the platen of the Fowle press is incorrectly installed and did not get misled by that feature. You are correct that the Hartford Courant’s press is a later Ramage, probably around 1818-1820. I am convinced that its one-pull platen is original with Ramage, as was, I believe, the original one-pull platen on a similar press at Juniata College. I wonder if any of the English press builder experimented along those lines?

  6. Yes, I was aware that the Fowle Press’ platen is has been installed perpendicular to its proper position. This was probably done by someone who did not realize it was a two-pull press, and assumed that the long side of the platen should be oriented in the same way as the bed.

    I haven’t studied the Ramage presses much, but I wouldn’t be surprised if its platen was original. Ramage’s designs for wooden presses were almost certainly influenced by the iron presses he has to compete with; eliminating the second pull would have made sense. However, I’m not aware of any English wooden presses that were originally single-pull, and certainly not any common presses.

  7. Hello all,
    I am a doctoral student in dissertation writing about early Athenaea in America. I am intrigued by the story of Elizabeth Glover and the indentured Matthew Daye. It seems as though after Mrs Glover passed away, Dunster, Harvard President- abandoned its use. Harvard Museums have no idea what happened to it, neither does the Cambridge Historical Society, Harvard Library–no body. Books were imported to America by private individuals, pooling their resources in Athenaea–like Redwood. Obviously, no one really wanted the colonists to publish anything-especially not outside of Cambridge. I’m just not quite comprehending why the Vermont Museum press could not be the Glover Daye press. Any Ideas appreciated. Thanks

  8. There is a book titled “Stephen Daye and his a press” (out or print )that has the story of this press and some of its subsequent owners but that press went to
    Marmaduke Johnson who then got the first license to bring a printing press to boston 1674 so the daye press went to Boston. Presses have slightly different construction techniques during different periods the press now in Montpelier presents a later build that a mid 17th c press. So that is why. G.Gregory, owner of the press at Edes&Gill boston mentioned above.

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