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ISO: the Smell of a Ramage

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I am writing about the earliest days of the Providence (R.I.) Journal, which at that time—the late 1820s—used a “Ramage printing press.” I’d like to describe in great detail what that must have been like: what it looked like, how it worked, what smells were emitted, what the job assignments might have been for the various employees in a small printing shop. Thanks, Dan Barry



  1. Firstly, a word of caution: many writers about early American printers described the presses as “Ramage” presses, but by the mid to late 19 th century (Ramage died in 1850) most wooden presses in the country were one or another type of Ramage product. In the 1820s, though, Ramage’s own presses dominated the field of small shops, though I am not clear that the Providence paper would have been a small shop. That said, the press commonly referred to as a “Ramage” was the wooden “common” press, which from Ramage’s hands was most likely made mostly of Honduran mahogany. The press used a large screw to obtain the pressure, with a quarter-revolution of it to achieve that. The ink was basically thick black paint, boiled linseed oil and lampblack. The hand-made paper was dampened for printing, so that the smells would have included the wood, ink, and paper as well as the printers. The press, operated usually by two people, could produce about 250 impressions an hour, or two pages, one side of a folded sheet. Backing that up could not be done that day until the ink had dried, so the damp sheets lent their combined odor to the shop. The type was cleaned using lye-water, which would have added its own odor to the mix. The press would creak and groan in use, as would the printer (more likely grunt), and the opening and closing tympan for each impression added a “clack” or two.

    The small shop was often just one person, who set the type, dampened the paper, inked and printed each sheet, and put them to dry., and after printing the type was “distributed” back into its proper places ready for the next run. But if the printer could afford help he/she (there were women printers) might have an inker assistant, and perhaps a typesetter as well. Well-established shops would also include the “devil”, usually a young man or boy whose job was to help keep order, clean up, and learn the processes so he could become a printer.

    If you have other questions about it, feel free to ask — there are others quite knowledgeable about the early printing practices. I believe James Franklin’s press may be in the Providence area if you want to examine a surviving example. Good luck!

  2. I think I responded too quickly. A bit of research reminded me that in the 1820s Providence was a city, and by the end of 1829 the Journal had become a daily paper. If the parent paper, a weekly or semi-weekly, before 1829, was the principal paper of Providence, it would have probably taken advantage by then of the new press technology that began to become available in New England about 1818 or before, of iron hand presses, first the Columbian in 1813, then the Wells in 1817, followed 4 years later by the Smith, Rust Washington, and several offerings from the Boston area. Thus, because these larger stronger presses could print a larger page more quickly, they would have replaced a “Ramage” press fairly early-on. Most of the sounds and smells would continue, though — it was not until the cylinder press began to prevail that production really speeded up. But if you are writing about the period before the daily began, it would be reasonable to imagine the Ramage in the first years anyway.

  3. Thank you very much for this, Mr. Oldham. Is there an email at which I could reach you? Mine is
    Thank you again.

  4. You’re off to a good beginning, hearing from Bob. He’ii always lead you straight on the presses. I’d just add a few more items for consideration. I like that you’ve considered smell as part of the description.
    In the early 1820s, it’s likely that the shop hadn’t moved from using inking “balls” to the newfangled rollers, so, there needed to be a supply of urine kept in house to treat the leather of the balls. And, in any 1820s shop, don’t forget the heat and smell of the wood stove all winter, probably with a kettle or bucket of water keeping hot and adding moisture to the room.
    I’d love to debate with Bob and others the estimates of sheets per hour. I’m beginning to revise down, closer to the estimates of 180 per hour, which comes out at a sheet every 20 seconds. And, it would be much slower with only a single operator. Fortunately, newspaper runs were frequently only a few hundred — but, in a city, that could be much higher.
    Bob mentions leaving sheets to dry before doing the back, and in a newspaper office getting the side with much of the advertising, and less urgent news, printed in advance may have had advantages; but, I’m not entirely convinced that printers wanted to let their sheets dry, only to redampen them for the second printing. Some book bibliographers also challenge this notion. I recently experimented with perfecting sheets (printing the back) immediately after the first printing, preserving the paper dampness, and had no problem with set off on the first side.
    Dan, you’ve set yourself quite a descriptive challenge. I look forward to seeing what you come up with. Best wishes.
    Stephen Sword

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