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Columbian press

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The Columbian press at the National Museum of Scotland, 2015

The Columbian press is a type of hand-operated printing press invented in the United States by George Clymer, around 1813. Made from cast iron, it was a very successful design and many thousands were made by him and by others during the 19th century. Columbians continued to be made as late as the early-20th century, 90 years after their introduction. Despite their age, many are still used for printing, especially by artists who make prints using traditional methods.

The Columbian design is also notable for its elaborate, symbolic ornamentation.


An 1816 illustration of an American-made Columbian press

The Columbian press was inspired in some measure by the earlier Stanhope press. It was designed to allow large formes, such as a broadsheet newspaper page, to be printed at a single pull. The press worked by a lever system, similar to that of the Stanhope press and quite different from the toggle action of the slightly later English Albion press.

George Clymer first began working on improvements to the printing press around 1800[1] and his new iron press was first advertised in April 1814.[2] However uptake by American printers was limited as his presses sold for $300 to $500 while a conventional press cost around $130. Also the Columbians were heavy, weighing around 1,500 kilograms (3,300 lb).[3] Wooden presses that were lighter and easier to transport were more attractive to printers outside of major centres.[4]

Despite the disadvantages, newspaper printers in large cities still bought Columbians as they could print more quickly, making them useful for newspapers with large circulations.[5][6] Newspapers in New York, Philadelphia and Albany bought Columbians;[4] one was used to print the Philadelphia Aurora[2] But this market was limited and it is thought Clymer sold fewer than 25 presses in the United States.[5]

In 1817, Clymer moved to London. He filed a patent for his invention in November of that year, and began manufacturing presses in premises at 1 Finsbury Street in 1818.[4][7] In Britain, Clymer's presses cost between £100 and £125, depending on the paper size they printed. But he later reduced prices to between £75 and £85.[4] Among the early adopters were Andrew Strahan, the King's Printer, and Abraham John Valpy, who were both using the presses by 1818.[8] Clymer's early advertisements describe the press as especially suitable for printing newspapers.[9] An 1825 news item describes a Columbian press as among the items sold when a Dublin newspaper was closed and its property auctioned for failing to pay stamp duty.[10]

A Columbian-type press with simplified decoration and mounted on a wooden base. Used by the French poet Joseph Roumanille in the early 1860s. Palais du Roure, Avignon, France, 2019

In 1830, Clymer formed a partnership with Samuel Dixon. The company moved to new premises at 10 Finsbury Street and traded under the name of Clymer and Dixon.[11] In 1834, George Clymer died but Dixon continued the make presses. He later joined with other partners, under the name of Clymer, Dixon and Co. The company was later taken over by others and continued production until it closed in 1863.[11]

Meanwhile, other manufacturers made Columbian presses under license, with at least one company in Germany making unlicensed versions.[12] More companies began making them after Clymer's patent expired. The presses were sold with different sizes of platen to accommodate different sizes of paper.[Note 1] Around 40 companies in eight countries are known to have made Columbian presses.[14] Mostly, the design saw little modification or improvement although some makers in Continental Europe altered or simplified the ornamentation[15] and some mounted their presses on a wooden base rather than a cast-iron one.[13]

Production continued for many decades - surviving trade catalogues show Columbians were still available for sale in 1906[16] as printers still found them useful for printing proofs - initial test prints of a publication. Some were still being used in this role as late as the 1970's.[17]


A Columbian press at Reichman University, Israel, 2013. The decorative elements have been highlighted in gold
The eagle on the Columbian press at the National Museum of Scotland, 2013

The press is sometimes referred to as the "Eagle press"[18] due to the characteristic, cast-iron bald eagle on the top lever which represents the United States.[19][20] The eagle weights around 50 pounds (23 kg) and functions as a counterweight, acting to raise the platen from the paper after a print has been made.[21]

The eagle clutches in one talon a cornucopia, representing prosperity and plenty. The other clutches an olive branch, representing peace.[20] Illustrations of the earliest presses show the eagle also clutching thunderbolts of Jupiter, but these are not present on any examples that survive.[22]

The side columns of the press are decorated with a Caduceus, the symbol of Hermes the messenger of the gods in Greek mythology.[23] This alludes to the role of the printing press in the dissemination of knowledge.[22] A secondary counterweight carries a figure of a woman in flowing robes with an anchor, this was an emblem known as the "Hope and Anchor".[21][16][18]

The serpent-like creatures on the press' levers are intended to be depictions of dolphins. They may represent wisdom[22] or knowledge.[19] Also, the dolphin was the mark of the famous early book printer, the Aldine Press.[21][19] The large main lever also carries a cartouche of flowers and fruit around an engraved, brass maker's plate.[24] The legs of the press rest on claw-and-ball feet.

These decorative elements were altered by some manufacturers. For example, some presses sold in France had the eagle replaced with a globe or a lion as the eagle was a contentious political symbol in the post-Napoleonic era.[12]

Surviving examples[edit]

One of the Columbian presses at the International Printing Museum being demonstrated to a student, 2009

Of the thousands made, 415 surviving presses were recorded in a world-wide census compiled between 2013 and 2017.[14] Examples of Columbian presses can be currently found in 29 countries. Around half of the presses are in the United Kingdom.[14] Some are still in use by artists using the linocut or woodcut methods for printmaking.[25][26]

None of Clymer's earliest, American-made presses are thought to survive.[13] There are around 40 surviving presses made during Clymer's lifetime.[27] The majority are presses made by other companies after Clymer's patents expired.

Many museums and other institutions own a Columbian press, some of which are still used. Examples include:


  1. ^ These included Quarto - 7 by 10 inches (18 by 25 cm); Double Demy - 24 by 36 in (61 by 91 cm); Double Royal - 25 by 40 in (64 by 102 cm) and Extra Size - 27 by 42 in (69 by 107 cm)[13]


  1. ^ Saxe (1992), p.9
  2. ^ a b Moran (1973), p.61
  3. ^ "Printing Press - Clymer Dixon & Co., Columbian, 1851". Museums Victoria Collections. Retrieved 16 January 2022.
  4. ^ a b c d Moran (1973), p.62-63
  5. ^ a b Saxe (1992), p.10
  6. ^ "Columbian press". National Museum of American History. Retrieved 1 January 2022.
  7. ^ "Clymer, Dixon and Co". Grace's Guide. Retrieved 4 July 2018.
  8. ^ Clymer, George (1818). The Patent Columbian Printing Press. [A Prospectus, with Testimonials. With a Plate.] London: A. J. Valpy. p. 1. OCLC 774501138.
  9. ^ "To Printers". The Liverpool Mercury. No. 730. Liverpool. 29 July 1826. Newspaper printers will find the Columbian Press particularly adapted to their use, from the facility which they, at one pull, obtain a powerful, even impression upon the largest-size paper.
  10. ^ "The Dublin Star Newspaper". Morning Chronicle. No. 17544. London. 10 August 1825.
  11. ^ a b Moran (1973), p.64
  12. ^ a b Moran (1973), p.66
  13. ^ a b c "Columbian Iron Hand Press". Atelier S8. Retrieved 3 January 2022.
  14. ^ a b c "Remembering George Clymer and the Columbian hand press". Association of European Printing Museums. 17 February 2017. Retrieved 2 January 2022.
  15. ^ Moran (1973), p.68
  16. ^ a b Moran (1973), p.67
  17. ^ Saxe (1992), pp. 12-13
  18. ^ a b c Holland, Ann-Marie (14 August 2019). "Columbian Press Restoration". news.library.mcgill.ca. Retrieved 1 January 2022.
  19. ^ a b c d "1824 Columbian Press". HIW Printing Museum. Retrieved 14 May 2024.
  20. ^ a b c "Columbian press". National Museum of American History. Retrieved 1 January 2022.
  21. ^ a b c Barbour, Mark. "The Columbian Press (1824)". YouTube. Retrieved 2 January 2022.
  22. ^ a b c Moran (1973), p.59
  23. ^ bawp (7 August 2017). "Art Barn project – the Columbian printing press". Every Barn Tells a Story. Retrieved 2 January 2022.
  24. ^ Moran (1973), p.60
  25. ^ Blanchard, Colin. "Printing linocuts on the Columbian press". YouTube. Retrieved 25 November 2022.
  26. ^ "Relief press". Swansea print workshop. Retrieved 25 November 2022.
  27. ^ "Welcome to Howard Iron Works - Antique Printers and Bookbinders Machinery Restoration and Printing Museum". www.howardironworks.org. Retrieved 3 January 2022.
  28. ^ "Technology Collection | Cary Graphic Arts Collection | RIT". www.rit.edu. Retrieved 1 August 2023.
  29. ^ "1845 Columbian Press". International Printing Museum. Retrieved 1 January 2022.
  30. ^ "Excellent fine art printmaking in Leicester & the East Midlands – Leicester Print Workshop". leicesterprintworkshop.com. Retrieved 1 January 2022.
  31. ^ "Columbian Printing Press". National Museums Scotland. Retrieved 1 January 2022.
  32. ^ "'Columbian' printing press". collections.tepapa.govt.nz. Retrieved 1 January 2022.
  33. ^ Sullivan, James (17 March 2017). "A place in Haverhill to hold the presses - The Boston Globe". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 2 March 2022.
  34. ^ "The machines and equipment in our museum". Penrith Museum of Printing. Retrieved 28 May 2024.
  35. ^ Small, Richard (25 August 2012). "Tokyo Printing Museum". Letterpresser. Retrieved 10 January 2022.
  36. ^ Schonherr, Johannes. "Printing Museum Tokyo". Japan Visitor.
  37. ^ "Columbian printing press, 1837. Science Museum Group Collection". collection.sciencemuseumgroup.org.uk. Retrieved 1 January 2022.
  38. ^ "Baird's Print Shop". nmni.com. Retrieved 1 January 2022.
  39. ^ Raza, Shahana (3 November 2019). "In Tranquebar, Amidst the Shells and Singing Waves". The Wire. Retrieved 5 January 2022.
  40. ^ Venkatraman, Lakshmi (24 May 2018). "Home to a shared heritage". The Hindu. Retrieved 5 January 2022.
  • Moran, James (1973). Printing presses; history and development from the fifteenth century to modern times. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-02245-9. OCLC 700316.

Further reading[edit]

  • Kainer, Jacob (1950). George Clymer and the Columbian Press. San Francisco: Book Club of California. OCLC 40446366.
  • Moran, James (1969). "The Columbian press". Journal of the Printing Historical Society (5): 1–23, plates 1–17.
  • Oldham, Robert (2014). "The Columbian press at 200: a preliminary report on a world-wide census". Journal of the Printing Historical Society. New Series. 21: 51–66.

External links[edit]