Wooden Common Press
Creating an 1850

Newspaper Printing Office
with historical accuracy

I received an inquiry during the summer of 2019 - could I supply the equipment to represent an 1850's print shop for the Apple TV show Emily Dickinson?
Yes, indeed - and here it is...

This was not to be a "modern", state-of-the art print shop, but was a one-man shop housed in a rural barn - composed of used equipment that would have been used by one man who wanted to print his own newspaper. Our old type cases, and the Wooden Common Press and other items fit the bill perfectly. The scenes were shot and I had a wonderful time teaching actors how to act like printers....

Printing Press(s) ~ Stone Table ~ Proof Press ~ Bindery Cart ~ Type Cabinet ~ Suggested Layout ~ Other Items
*note all items are functional and usable for printing and are period accurate - circa 1850

The old
                              Print Shop

Typesetter, Pressman and Inker at work printing a book.

They could just as well be printing a newspaper, but the sheets drying on the line are 4-page signatures that would be gathered, folded, stitched and bound into a book.
The inker is using "ink balls" which would have been replaced by an ink roller by 1850.
For more on Ink Balls and Ink Rollers - American Bookbinder's Museum

First of all, although flatbed cylinder presses were indeed being made before 1850, they were very expensive, as were the Iron Hand Presses also used at that time. The Wooden Common Press, however, cost far less and was still being used. In fact, Adam Ramage was making new Wooden Presses in Philadelphia as late as 1840-50. And, since repairs were typically done by a locally available "joyner" ("joiner"/skilled wood worker), rather than an expensive "factory-trained machinist", maintaining a Wooden Common Press was easy and inexpensive, adding to their continued use in the face of progress.

Below are photos of the equipment we are prepared to supply.

The Wooden Common PressThe Wooden Common Press

Wooden Common Press:  30x60x80" *
Press Platform:       39x75x4"
Estimated weight:     500 pounds

* 84" when mounted on its platform as shown

This press was built at The Excelsior Press Museum Restoration Facility in Frenchtown, NJ in 2014.  It is a faithful representation of the ubiquitous Wooden Common Press - a standard design used mostly unchanged for over 200 years. This press is listed on the International Registry of Common Presses and was on display at the Smithsonian-Affiliate National Museum of Industrial History in 2018.

Our press was made from plans produced by Harrison & Sisson with The Smithsonian Institute during restoration of a representative Wooden Common Press in the Smithsonian collection in 1970. It is also nearly 100% identical to the presses built by Adam Ramage until his death about 1840, so it would be accurate to represent this press as "an older, used press built by Adam Ramage during the 1830's"...

Since the newspaper to be represented began publishing in 1846, and consisted of only four pages per weekly edition, it is entirely likely that the press the publisher would have chosen would be the inexpensive, available old standby - the Wooden Common Press and that the print shop described here would be equal to the task.

Except for the steel screw, this press is all wood, fitted using mortise & tenon and wooden pegs. For convenience when moving, it is mounted on a platform with 6 wheels for easy moving and includes especially-made "mini-chocks" to lock the wheels in place and prevent inadvertent movement of the press once it is in position.

Since it is made of west-coast fir instead of oak and elm or mahogany, and lacks the 200# stone bed, it is relatively light - perhaps 500-600 pounds by estimate. It moves quite easily on its platform. The same press made of hard woods and containing a 200 pound stone bed, would weigh closer to 800-1000 pounds.

The Wooden Common Press Iron Hand Press
Optional Press -

This press was made by Schneidewand & Lee at the turn of the century. It represents the more common and familiar 19th-century Iron Hand Press which became available by 1830. However, the Iron Hand Press cost about three times as much as a Wooden Common Press, so the idea that our printer started off with a less expensive, used press makes perfect sense.

This press weighs about 2,000 pounds, requires about the same floor space as the Wooden Common Press and is available (at extra cost) as an alternative to the wooden model.

For more on Iron Presses and the transition from Wooden Presses, see the American Bookbinder's Museum page on the subject

Stone-topped Make-up TableStone Table

Stone Table  27x63" - 100 pounds
Stone Top    24x36" - 150 pounds*
MDF Faux "Stone"  24x36" - 30 pounds *(alternate)
Furniture Cabinet 9x12x28h" (approx.) 25 pounds
This table is known as "The Stone" due to the heavy 2"x24"x36" smooth granite slab on top of it. Stone Table TopFurniture CabinetThe Stone is also referred to as the "Makeup Table" since it is used to make up type forms for printing and includes a small wooden "furniture cabinet" filled with precisely cut wooden spacing material used by the type setter to space out the type form as he locks it into the chase (steel frame)

Stone-topped Make-up
                                        TableThe Stone can also be used as an Ink Table, since once the form is made up and in the press, it is no longer needed until the printing job is done. Meanwhile, it serves as an excellent smooth surface for mixing ink and maintaining a supply for inking the form.

And, due to the weight of the actual stone, we are also preparing a "prop" stone made of laminated MDF, painted to look like granite. This may be more appropriate for this application. It will look the same - but will be much easier to handle safely. Click on either photo to compare the stones

The Proof Press

C&P Proof Press         24x35"
300 lbs (est.)
The Galley Proof Press would be used to print a proof-reader's sample of the type that has been set. It can be used to print short run jobs as well, but is not as well suited to that task as it is to print galley proofs of type.

The Hoe Company began making presses like this one in 1840.
The Wooden Common Press

Antique Bindery CartBindery Cart

Bindery Cart         21x27"
50 pounds (est)

Antique Bindery CartThe Bindery Cart would be used to move paper around the shop. The shelves are sloped slightly to the rear to prevent tall stacks of paper from falling over while the cart is being moved from the press room to the bindery. Antique Bindery Cart Shelf

It can also be used to bring blank sheets to the press for printing. We made a proper, historically accurate new shelf for this old cart.

Type Case Stand (aka Type Cabinet)

Type Cabinet         28x36" - 25 pounds
15 type cases - stacked 25x32x20" high - 150 pounds

The Type Cabinet
holds ten - fifteen drawers of hand-set foundry type - letters - lots and lots of letters. The Typesetter picks letters out of the cases and assembles them into rows and columns of type for printing.

When filled with cases, two are left on the top - an "Upper" Case - containing capital letters and a "Lower" case containing lower-case letters.

                                    Open Frame City Stand Type Case

Suggested Layout for Historically Accurate Representation of a small printing office circa 1859

In this layout, the TYPESETTER would move only left and right - from the type cabinet to the proof press, then on to the stone to lock up the form, then back to his type cases without interfering with the printers.

The INKER would stand where he is and move to the left to get ink, then apply it to the form from where he is. The PRESSMAN would stand where he is, crank the bed in and out and pull the lever, then crank the bed out and open the frisket - all without moving much at all. The FEEDER would take blank sheets from the Bindery Cart (or a table), and insert them into the tympan. The pressman would close the frisket, crank the bed under the platen and continue... One printer could do 50-100 pieces per hour. With three printers, output could be more than doubled.

Print Shop Layout
Complete List of  Items:
  1. 1 Full Scale, Wooden Common Press (similar to one that would have been made by Adam Ramage in 1840) - with chase
  2. 1 Stone Makeup Table with with 24x36x2" granite stone surface
  3. 1 Furniture Cabinet (shelves) with wood spacing material
  4. 1 Galley Proof Press on Stand ("made by" Hoe circa 1840)
  5. 1 Bindery Cart
  6. 1 Type Cabinet
  7. 2 type cases with type
  8. 10 type cases - empty
  9. 1 Old-style Composing Stick
  10. miscellaneous "stack" of wood-mounted metal engravings
  11. 1 large ink brayer (ink roller)
  12. 1 container of black ink (Van Son Rubber Base 10850 - old style can; no label)
  13. 1 ink knife
  14. 5 sheets press tympan paper
  15. 5 sheets soft packing
  16. 50 sheets 17x22 bond
  17. 50 sheets 11x17 70# offset
  18. 2 printers' shop aprons
  19. selection of wooden quoins & wooden shooting stick
  20. 1 wood mallet
  21. 1 leveling planing block
  22. Hemp Cord for paper drying line.
  23. ...tbd...

Please contact Alan Runfeldt with other questions 

page last updated September 6, 2019