Personal Impressions:

The Small Printing Press in Nineteenth-Century America

Printing was the most widespread, and competitive business of nineteenth-century America. Every city had not only its big presses for printing catalogues, books, and newspapers, but also countless smaller presses for printing small jobs – the pamphlets, posters, handbills, stationery, cards, and tickets that gave the century so much of its color. Several of the names we now count as giants of the publishing industry: Scribner, Doubleday, George Houghton of Houghton Mifflin, and Donald Brace of Harcourt Brace started out not as publishers but as small-job printers, running their own shops and working humble, everyday, manually operated presses.

This complete, definitive, and richly illustrated survey of small nineteenth-century printing presses, written by a former curator at the Smithsonian Institution, is the first history of these lovely, useful, and prodigiously varied machines. There was, in those days, a small printing press for every purpose. And there were innumerable boys and men eager to make their fortunes by investing in one, printing for a local clientele, and, with luck, building a printing or publishing empire.

What the desktop computer is to today, these small iron workhorses were to the nineteenth century, and this book, which catalogues, describes, and illustrates over a hundred small printing presses and their makers, giving machine specifications as well as patent information, is a mine of previously undocumented printing history. No one seriously interested in the story of American printing can afford to be without it.

Elizabeth M. Harris was the Curator of Graphic Arts in the National Museum of American History, part of the Smithsonian Institution, from the 1970s until her retirement in 1997. She began as an assistant curator at the institution in 1965, after publishing an influential series of articles on nineteenth-century printing and illustration processes. She received an Individual Laureate from the American Printing History Association in honor of her accomplishments in the field in 2006. After retiring, Harris moved to Dorset, England, where she spends much of her time raising goats and making cheese.