This is the second in a series of posts that will appear throughout the year.
When designing a wooden common press, there’s only so much information available in print. Printer’s manuals, like Caleb Stower’s 1808 manual, The Printer’s Grammar, describe the parts of a printing press, but not so thoroughly as to provide all dimensions. These manuals are useful, but nothing beats being able to measure the real deal.1 Our team was fortunate enough to visit the Mackenzie Printery and Newspaper Museum in Queenston, Ontario on February 20th to examine and measure the Louis Roy Press held there. Roy was the first King’s printer in Upper Canada and printed the Upper Canada Gazette, beginning in 1793.
The museum is housed in the building in which William Lyon Mackenzie, an early Canadian statesman, published The Colonial Advocate, beginning in 1824. The museum houses its collection on three floors, with the first floor used to hold several presses and a print shop. On the second floor is the library and gift shop (which has some great printing-related gifts), and the basement is used for storing other portions of the collection not currently on display. The main room houses several presses, including the Roy Press, an early Albion, and a Hopkinson & Cope press. All of the presses, with the exception of the Roy, are regularly used and maintained. In the back room on the main floor are several newer presses, including a Heidelberg windmill. For me, the highlight of the back room was the fully-operational Linotype (coincidentally, the machine was formerly owned by RIT).
One of the strengths of the museum is that nothing is behind glass; everything is set up as it would have been originally in a print shop. Any visitor can approach the presses or type cases and get an immediate and intimate sense of what the printing industry was like when hot lead still reigned. This arrangement is based in the museum’s origins. It was founded by retired individuals from the industry looking to house their “toys” and have some fun. Through an agreement with the Niagara Parks Commission the collection was moved to the Mackenzie site and opened to the public, where visitors are now able to tour the facility and participate in workshops.
When we arrived, Ron Schroder, chairman of the museum, greeted us along with Melissa Bottomly of the NPC. We at first thought a third person was there to greet us, but quickly realized it was just the museum’s life-size mannequin of William Mackenzie! After a quick tour of the facility, we got down to business. We spent the better part of the day measuring and photographing the press, with a brief pause to discuss our project with local paper The Niagara Falls Review. At the end of the visit, we wound up with around 300 photographs and dimensions of many parts of the press.
The origins of the Roy Press are not completely clear. In his 1970 census of common presses2, Philip Gaskell noted that the press (CDN 1) was “possibly imported from England in about 1780” and also notes that the maker’s name, Coates, stamped on the spindle, was not found in any directories. Since the time of his census, the press was subject to a restoration effort that rebuilt its missing hindposts, hindrails, gallows, and rounce. Upon our first inspection, the cap of the press appeared to be in very good condition, but looking at it from the top showed that the restorers had cut out the damaged sections of wood and replaced them with new wood. This invasive approach would not be taken today by conservators who seek to make reversible repairs.
Having never been so close to a common press before, a few things struck me. I was immediately impressed by its size; standing over six feet high, five feet long, and three feet wide, the press looms over anyone standing beside it. Something else that became apparent was the simplicity of its construction. In his plenary address at the annual APHA conference this past Fall, Jeffrey Groves pointed out how easy it was to assemble and disassemble a common press, and being in the presence of one made that clear.
As I wrote in my first post, there were incremental developments in printing press design and construction throughout the period during which wooden presses were used. Some of these changes have been described, such as differences in the design of the press’ hose. But others were a little less clear as the project got underway. The difference in hose design is largely a geographic one; box hoses existed in England and her colonies, and Blaeu-style hoses were prevalent in the Low Countries. These two styles experienced their own, separate evolutions, but the temporal differences in details were less clear.
Thanks to our visit with the Roy press, we had an insight into the evolution of English-style presses. At the start of the eighteenth century, the bed assembly of the press rode on top of ten “cramp irons,” which are essentially solid iron bearings, arranged in two rows of five to sit on top of the rails of the press. This arrangement of cramp irons exists on the Franklin Press at the Smithsonian. On the Roy, however, is a later style of cramp iron; on it are a total of eight cramp irons, with six individuals (in two rows of three) in the middle, and one at each end spanning both rails. These end cramps irons have shoulders on them that capture the rails and guide the plank. By functioning as both a bearing and a guide, the guide boards previously seen on either side of the bed of a common press could be eliminated.
Already we’re getting a better sense of what our press will look like when we build it. All of the presses that we’re aware of in North America postdate 1700, and those are the only presses we’ll be able to examine, so we’ve decided to build a press representative of the eighteenth century. As I’ve already described, there were further refinements during that time, and we’re still working to narrow our focus to represent a smaller window within the century. Soon, we’ll be taking a trip to New England to view at least three more historic presses, so stay tuned to read about the insights that trip brings! For photos of the project, check out our Instagram account, @UncommonPress.
- 1 An excellent example of the kind of measurements needed to build a common press is Harris and Sisson’s The Common Press, which provides complete measurements of all parts of the purported Benjamin Franklin Press in the Smithsonian.
- 2 Philip Gaskell, “A Census of Wooden Presses,”Journal of the Printing Historical Society, vol. VI, 1970, p. 6