The Advent of the Low-Cost Press


IN 1867 OCCURRED an event as significant in the history of amateur journalism as was Gutenberg’s invention of printing in the field of literature. This was the placing upon the market an inexpensive, yet easily workable, amateur printing press. Up to this time three methods of publication were open to the youthful publisher. He could write or print the contents of his paper with pen or pencil, as did Stevenson and Hawthorne. But by this method the edition was limited to a single copy, and its circulation was attained only by passing this one copy from hand to hand. Or the amateur publisher could take his manuscript to a professional printer and pay him to do the mechanical work on his paper. But this was expensive and beyond the means of the average American boy of the time. Or, if he was possessed of sufficient mechanical ingenuity, he could build a press for himself, as did Rogers and Kemble. The advent of the amateur printing press changed all this and gave to amateur journalism the greatest impulse it has ever received.


It is true that, some years before, several attempts to manufacture a boy’s press had been made. But these were either so expensive or so cumbersome or ineffective in operation that they met with limited success. The Ruggles Diamond press, patented in 1851, was designed for printing cards and small work. It was followed in 1857 by the Lowe press, which had a flat bed, was inked by hand, and its impres­sion was made by a roller, in the shape of a cone, running over a cloth-covered tympan. As far as can be ascertained, the Lowe was the first of its class in this country, but twenty years before, there were inventors in England experimenting with a press for youthful hands. Holtzapffel & Co., lathe and tool manufacturers, before 1839, advertised “Mr. Cowper’s Parlour Printing Press for young persons.” This was operated roughly on the principle of a waffle-iron, with a toggle-joint clamp worked by a lever to give the impression.


In 1860 Joseph Watson, of Boston, later of New York, brought out the Adams Cottage Press, the impression being made by the beds running under a cylinder turned by hand. But the era of amateur printing presses may fairly be said to have begun with the first hand-inking treadle press invented by Benjamin O. Woods of Boston, who named it the Novelty. Woods conducted a drug store on the corner of Kneeland and Federal streets, and felt the need of something with which to print his labels and recipes. After considerable study he constructed a press with a perpendicular bed-plate, the impression being given by means of a toggle-joint. Its very simplicity enabled it to be sold for a few dollars. Among the periodicals carry­ing Mr. Woods’ advertisement were Saint Nicholas and Youths’ Companion, both of which vied with Oliver Optic’s Magazine in printing news about amateur printers and editors. Many of the boys who read these publications became amateur crafts­men in these lines. The low cost of the new printing press attracted their interest and started them on the way towards journalistic careers.


Among the notable names of the Novelty Press owners was Edward A. Oldham, of Wilmington, N. C., who in the early Seventies gradually earned sufficient funds to purchase the first Novelty Press sold in North Carolina. He picked up typo­graphical knowledge enough to enable him to successfully operate a small job printing shop, where he competed with the local printers in the turning out of letter heads, envelopes and other small jobs. One of the local job printers complained to the boy’s father that, as his son had no overhead to consider, he was quoting prices that under-bid the regular shops. The ten-year-old job printer met this situation by proposing an arrangement to turn over to the older printer jobs too large for the scope of a 6 X 10 capacity. This worked out successfully and to the profit of both the complaining adult and the younger printer, until the latter reached the age of 14 and was packed off to a distant military school, much against his wishes.


A few years later Oldham boxed up his beloved Novelty and its appurtenances of type, etc., and made a present of the entire outfit to his friend Josephus Daniels, of Wilson, who later published the Cornucopia, and became active in amateur journalistic circles. Mr. Daniels has stated on more than one occasion that this gift of Oldham’s printing outfit was his first introduction to journalism. Ultimately he became publisher of the leading daily newspaper in the North Carolina capital, the Raleigh News and Observer. It will be remembered that this resulted in his becoming active in politics, and later becoming a member of President Woodrow Wilson’s Cabinet, as Secretary of the Navy, during the first World War, and sub­sequently serving for eight years under President Franklin D. Roosevelt as United States Ambassador to Mexico.


With the success of the Novelty printing press other rival manufacturers quickly awoke to the opportunity. The Woods press at first was actuated by a hand lever, but later a treadle was added. It was mounted upon a box or stand, open in front to give free leg room. There was an iron back shelf at the top for the hand ink roller. The platen was forced up against the type by a strong downward pressure upon the treadle, which pulled down a heavy rod that by a toggle-squeeze made the impression. There was no wheel to augment the foot power.


Mr. Woods sensed the wide use which might be made of such a press, advertised it extensively, and achieved a large sale. Rival manufacturers came on the scene and made improvements. Simultaneously a regular business of furnishing supplies to amateur printers was built up. Mr. Woods had no use for a self-inking machine and predicted that they would never amount to anything, for, he said, “A good self-inker can not be made for a price within the reach of the average purchaser.” Others thought differently, however, and in the early Seventies, Golding & Co., of Boston, brought out the Pearl, the first self-inking amateur press on the market. They later made it into a rotary.


In 1872 William A. Kelsey, of Meriden, Conn., began the manufacture of an amateur printing press. His first advertisement appeared in the Youth’s Companion for December 19, 1872. His press, known as the Excelsior, was at first inked by hand, but was made self-inking in 1875. Later a wheel-and-treadle press was intro­duced. His presses met with great favor, and the company he organized, the Kelsey Press Co., is still successfully carrying on [at the time of writing, 1940; it has, sadly, closed its doors], although all the other manufacturers of the time have long since gone out of existence. The Kelsey Company is now headed by Glover A. Snow, son of William G. Snow, one of the prominent amateur editors of Connecticut in the decade of the Seventies.


Before Kelsey bought his own shop in 1876, he occupied rented quarters, and his landlord was so impressed with the business that he entered into it as a com­petitor. He organized the firm of J. Cook & Co., and made the Enterprise, continu­ing until 1883, when he sold out to Kelsey. A number of other Meriden persons began making presses, but none of their ventures amounted to much. Among them was Frederick C. Penfield, who later became a professional journalist, entered the diplomatic service, and was United States Ambassador to Austria-Hungary from 1915 to 1917, when this country entered the first World War. He was 20 years old when he began making the Waverly press. He advertised freely, but his career in this field was short.


J. M. Jones, of Palmyra, N. Y., brought out the Star press in 1869. It used a foot-power treadle or “stamper.” There was no wheel. Later Kelsey secured the trade mark “Star” for one of his presses still made. In 1873 J. W. Daughaday, publisher of juvenile books and magazines in Philadelphia, began selling presses, and soon brought out one of his own, the Model “J.” F. W. Dorman, of Baltimore, placed a press upon the market known as the Baltimorean, which was well liked. This was the press owned by Henry L. Mencken in his boyhood. Joseph Watson, already referred to, was an early delver in amateur printing presses and brought out the Young America in 1872, a hand inking press, and later the United States Jobber, a self-inking rotary. He also sold out to Kelsey. Curtiss & Mitchell, of Boston, introduced the Columbian in 1876, and later the Caxton. Both were very popular.


In 1876 there were a number of machines on the market, the leaders — Kelsey, Woods, Watson and Golding — all having a display at the Centennial Exposition. These exhibits gave a marked impetus to the use of amateur presses. Many other manufacturers entered the field, and competition was brisk. When a printing outfit could be procured for a few dollars, boys and girls in all parts of the country caught the printing fever, papers multiplied by the score, and a new era in amateur journalism began.

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