Ever Wondered How George Clymer’s Columbian Letterpress Worked?

A Guest Post by Mike Haigh, Printroom Custodian at the Beck Isle Museum, in Pickering, Yorkshire, tells us how.

The 1854 Colombian Letterpress Double Demi Press on display at Beck Isle Museum, Pickering, Yorkshire.
Image © Tony Bartholomew / Turnstone Media info@turnstonemedia.co.uk

The Columbian Letterpress Double Demi Revealed

This hand printing press was invented by George Clymer, an engineer from Philadelphia, USA, in 1813. The design was the first all metal lever operated machine in America.  Before this type of machine, printing presses were made of wood and operated like a cider press with a large screw. It cost around $500 – more than double the price of printing presses previously. He supposedly sold 67 in America before deciding to try his luck in Europe in 1817. It was priced in England in 1817 at between £100 and £150 dependent on size of platen. 

By 1820 its manufacture in Europe succeeded through a clever marketing strategy of giving the Columbian to influential monarchs on the continent such as William I of the Netherlands. The Columbian was very efficient due to its counterbalanced principle. The main counterbalance is the American Bald Eagle, the Eagle was changed for a Globe (the world), Vulture, Lion or the German double headed eagle dependent on which country the manufacture was carried out. The machine is highly decorated, purportedly to differentiate the press from other British metal presses of the time.

How The Machine Works

In the 1800s this machine was supposedly able to be operated by two children as young as 12 years old. To operate the press, the forme containing the type would be laid on the bed, inked by hand with a roller (the ink was oil based, not water based as nowadays and needed to be worked up on an ink table first), then the paper was placed on the forme, the tympan was then lowered to hold the paper in position, then driven by a handle which turned a canvas belt, the bed was turned underneath the platen, the lever was then pulled across which pressed the platen against the forme using the counterbalanced weights, levers and fulcrums, transferring the ink from the type to the paper, the bed was then wound out, the tympan lifted and the printed copy peeled off the forme. Phew! Recovered? Because once the copy had been removed the procedure was all ready to go again and make the next copy. It supposedly could print 250 copies per hour but we think that 50 copies per hour is more believable.

George Clymer’s Columbian Letterpress at the Beck Isle Museum

Our Colombian was made in 1854 in Finsbury Street, London, under licence and weighs one and a half tons. It was still being used by a Pickering printer up to 45 years ago when as a true Yorkshireman he retired and allowed us to purchase the said machine. The machine had been owned by four printers in Pickering over the years as their businesses developed or changed hands.

The decorations on the Colombian actually tell a story but more of than another time…

For further information and to see this machine in its full glory visit the Beck Isle Museum in Pickering, Yorkshire where we are open seven days a week.


How Nana Helped Me Become A Writer

Or How One Adoption Played A Crucial Role In Three Generations Of My Family

A woman standing at a printing press
Kathleen Elizabeth Earlam

Kathleen’s arm rests on an old printing press at the Beck Isle Museum in Pickering, Yorkshire. She used to work this type of machine – a Colombian Letterpress Double Demi – when she was a young woman in World War II. She had one of those tough Dickensian childhoods that no one, especially her, ever spoke about. When Kathleen was a child, her own Mum was forced to take her to the workhouse. Luckily, if that is the right word, she was only in there for a day before being adopted. It was this adoption by Harold Black the local printer that proved crucial in Nana acquiring the skills that ultimately morphed and cascaded through three generations into my life.

Fought To Become A Compositor

After learning the family business, she moved to Wilmslow, where she fought to become a compositor – a person who arranges type in a printing machine – on her own terms at Richmond’s the local printers. In an all male industry she fought for her job, she fought to become part of the union and she fought to get the same pay as men. All of these battles she successfully won and undertook this ‘men’s work’ made vacant by the war.

A Woman Of Letters

Nana was as tough as old boots, yet there must have been something in her brain that made her good with letters too. She could say the alphabet backwards, read words upside down and her spelling was second to none. Mum told me she would often suddenly say to her, ‘How do you spell “this” or how do you spell “that”?’ and ‘How many pieces of paper are in a ream?’* Also she just couldn’t bear to see Granddad to pull the sports section out of the paper and move all the sections out of order.

Harold Black, Pickering, printer,
L to R: Maurice and Kathleen Earlam with their daughter Ann (my Mum) in front of Harold Black and his wife.

All of this, in turn, made Mum a great lover of words, especially the classics. The Yorkshire books (pronounced bewks) such as the Brontës were a staple of Mum’s childhood. Thankfully, in this case old habits die hard, and that meant it was my turn to fall in love with letters. I can remember from a very early age begging Mum at bedtime to ‘put her feets up’ and read one more book to me.

So here’s to you Nana! I hope all the letters are in the right place and the pages are in the correct order wherever you are.

Literally yours,

Your granddaughter Nikki

*The answer is 500 identical sheets

Many thanks to Mike Haigh, Print Room Custodian at the Beck Isle Museum