Field Trip: Printer’s shop

One of the two presses at Colonial Williamsburg. All photos by me; click to see them bigger.

I decided that the Wakefield family in my novel The Spanish Patriot would be printers after reading this passage, from Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World by Maya Jasanoff (boldface type is my highlighting):

Wells had dismantled his family’s printing press in Charleston (used to print Charleston’s leading prewar newspaper) and brought it with him to St. Augustine. There he successfully reassembled it—thanks to the invaluable diagrams in a book called The Printer’s Grammar and ‘the assistance of a common negro carpenter’—to publish Florida’s first newspaper in early 1783. — p 97

I’d never heard that colonial presses could be taken apart and put back together. Imagine, people traveling the world with their own “portable” printing press — and a ton of extra luggage allowance. I couldn’t resist sending my Wakefields all over the Atlantic with their press. I had to see one up-close, so early last year we spent the day at Colonial Williamsburg, which has a working printery.


Journeyman Printer Peter Stinely sets a fresh sheet of paper on the platen. The set type is already in a form on the the bed, below his left elbow. He’ll set the page on top of the type, then slide them under the press. Pulling the lever presses the page into the inked form.


Two pages of the Virginia Gazette, on the bed of the press. The copper bit at top left is the nameplate. It could take up to 12 hours to set this much type.


Wmburg-type-600Above, a form and tools for setting type, in the box, and on the right are the “beaters,” leather stretched over cotton and used to spread the ink onto the forms. It’s important to spread the ink evenly over the entire plate, otherwise the page will come out with faded parts or splotches where the spaces should be (like inside e’s). You gently smack the beaters against each other to push out air bubbles and make the ink the right consistency. Every day after they were done, printers had to unstring the leather, rinse it out and dry it, otherwise it would crack or get too stiff. At right, the cases for the type; upper-case fonts are in the upper cases; lower-case below. Wmburg-masthed-1000Pasted to the wall you can see how the Gazette dealt with changing loyalties in the American Revolutionary War. At top, on 10 May 1776, the nameplate includes the coat of arms of the Royal Colony of Virginia. On 15 May, the state’s convention of delegates voted to adopt the Virginia Resolution for American Independence. When the Gazette next came out, only two days later, publisher Alexander Purdie did not want to use the royal seal but the engraver had not had time to make up a new nameplate. So Purdie jury-rigged a temporary nameplate using just type, which reads, “Thirteen United Colonies. United, we stand… Divided, we fall.” By 7 June 1776, at bottom, he had his new nameplate, which includes the words “Don’t Tread on Me.”

Important for my story, women had an active role in print shops at this time. The Virginia Gazette was first run by the Rinds family; when William Rind died in 1773, his wife Clementina continued the business. (After she died, in 1774, Alexander Purdie ran it on behalf of the Rind children). In Connecticut, Hannah B. Watson was publisher of the Hartford Courant for two years after her husband died in 1777. Plenty of precedent for my Louisa Wakefield’s master skills at setting type and pulling pages.

I know the Watson story because the Courant was the first newspaper I worked at, back in the late 1980s-early ’90s. A little Watson-era press sat behind cords in the big hallway dividing the offices and the press and distribution area. It faced a tall bank of windows where you could see the four current, gigantic presses ready to roll like thunder after we’d gotten the paper made up.

Read more:

Colonial Williamsburg: The Printing Office

Colonial Williamsburg: The Power of the Press

Nice photos and description of a Gutenberg-style press by Alix Christie

Wmburg-books-600Maria’s Story (Young Americans: Colonial Williamsburg), Joan Lowery Nixon (Williamsburg: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2001)

The Printer in Eighteenth-Century Williamsburg, 2d ed., August Klapper, Parke Rouse Jr., M.W.Thomas Jr., Thomas K. Ford (Williamsburg: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1958)(pamphlet)

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2 Replies to “Field Trip: Printer’s shop”

  1. Thanks for a most interesting history lesson. Who knew about beaters? And how the leather had to washed of ink after each use. The revolution of movable print apparently included the movable press itself. Wow!

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