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Typefounding in 19th Century Philadelphia Reexamined

Specimen of Printing Types and Ornaments, Robb & Ecklin, 1836, p.84 (RIT)

While researching Robb & Ecklin, typefounders in Philadelphia from 1836 to 1844, I discovered information that sheds new light on the history of typefounding in that city and challenges some commonly-held facts. The inquiry that led me to this new information was whether typefounder Edwin Starr (or one of his brothers) intersected with Jedidiah Howe, whose foundry Robb & Ecklin took over, or with Samuel Ecklin or Alexander Robb themselves.

Type Foundries of America and their Catalogs compiled and written by Maurice Annenberg with additions by Stephen O. Saxe (Oak Knoll Press, 1994) has an entry on Starr’s Type Foundry in New York ca. 1812–1817 (p. 230) as well as a lengthy description of the peregrinations of Edwin Starr and his brothers (pp. 112–115) after 1817. He concludes that Edwin Starr went into business as a typefounder with his son Thomas W. Starr ca. 1840 and that the foundry was sold to Collins & M’Leester in 1853 (presumably following the death of Edwin Starr). 

Philadelphia city directories from 1854 to 1905 list either Thomas W. Starr as a typefounder or the Thomas W. Starr typefoundry as a business. However, Thomas W. Starr died on March 30, 1881. He had already taken his son Edwin P. Starr on as a partner in the foundry as early as 1867, and the son apparently continued the business until 1905. Edwin P. Starr died in 1907.

In a sidenote on p. 115, Annenberg says that Thomas W. Starr & Son “was also started by Edwin Starr, but specialized in the sale of equipment for marking laundry, such as indelible ink and rubber stamps. T.W. Starr died in 1881, and the son took over the business.” He seems to have gotten Edwin Starr and Edwin P. Starr confused. A directory entry in 1906 indicates that the latter was in the rubber stamp business. And an 1884 history of Philadelphia mentions the foundry as making type for linen marking. There are no records of a type specimen ever being issued by Thomas W. Starr & Son.

Collins & M’Leester, ca. 1866 specimen book (Columbia University)

Annenberg begins his history of the Collins & M’Leester foundry, assuming it was a continuation of E. Starr & Son. Still, he provides no information to support his claim. No documentary sources online indicate the foundry of E. Starr & Son was sold to Collins & M’Leester. That information—which many sources besides Annenberg have repeated—seems to come from Theodore L. De Vinne’s Plain Printing Types (p. 104). Collins & M’Leester was apparently established coincidentally by Samuel Collins and Alexander M’Leester. 

Annenberg does not relate the history of Collins & M’Leester after their founding in 1853 or 1854 (documentary sources provide both dates). Collins died in 1883, and Thomas A. Wiley purchased his share of the foundry. M’Leester took over sole ownership of the foundry in 1887 when Wiley retired. The foundry became part of American Type Founders in 1892.

Alexander M’Leester was born in 1816 in Ireland. He arrived in the United States in 1824. He worked for Elihu White’s foundry in New York and then for Johnson & Smith’s foundry in Philadelphia before partnering with Samuel C. Collins. Before he died in 1904, M’Leester was regularly described as the oldest living type founder in the United States. Collins (1829–1883) worked for his father’s printing firm but apparently had no typefounding experience. He was actively involved in Philadelphia politics from at least 1874 until his death.

Much is still to be discovered about typefounding in Philadelphia in the nineteenth century. To learn more about Robb & Ecklin register for my upcoming Zoom talk on April 6: Demonology & | witchcraft!!! | Printing: An online research session into the history of Philadelphia type foundries 1823–1844.

p.s. one other offshoot of my research is the discovery of a curious pamphlet titled An Appeal to Banks in Particular and the Public in General by Abel Brewster (1815) about his attempt to devise a compound-plate process for printing banknotes. The pamphlet details his travails with various potential partners and investors, including the typefounders Binny & Ronaldson and the engraver John M. Reich (who briefly partnered with Edwin and Richard Starr in a type foundry located in both Philadephia and Pittsburgh). This pamphlet (available via Google Books) may be of interest to APHA members researching either bank note printing or Binny & Ronaldson.


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