Columbian press

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Columbian press at the Museum of Lincolnshire Life

A 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 during the 19th century. They continued to be made as late as the early-20th century, 90 years after their introduction. Some are still used for printing, despite their age.

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. Clymer's new iron press was first advertised in April 1814.[1]

Clymer manufactured a few presses in America and sold them to newspaper printers in New York, Philadelphia and Albany.[2] One was used to print the Philadelphia Aurora[1] However the market was limited as his presses cost around twice as much as a traditional, wooden printing press.[3] Also the Columbian was heavy, weighing around 1,500 kilograms (3,300 lb).[4] Wooden presses that were lighter and easier to transport were more attractive to printers outside of major centres.[2]

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.[2][5] His presses cost between £100 and £125, depending on the paper size they printed. But he later reduced prices to between £75 and £85.[2] Among the early adopters were Andrew Strahan, the King's Printer, and Abraham John Valpy, who were both using the presses by 1818.[6]

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.[7] 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.[7]

Meanwhile, other manufacturers made Columbian presses under license, with at least one company in Germany making unlicensed versions.[8] 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. 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)[9]

Around 40 companies in eight countries are known to have made Columbian presses.[10] Production continued for many decades - surviving trade catalogues show Columbians were still available for sale in 1906.[11] Mostly, the design saw little modification or improvement although some makers in Continental Europe made changes to the ornamentation[12] and some mounted their presses on a wooden base rather than a cast-iron one.[9]


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

The press is sometimes incorrectly referred to as the "Eagle press"[13] due to the characteristic, cast-iron bald eagle on the top lever which represents the United States.[14][15] 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.[16]

The eagle clutches in one talon a cornucopia, representing prosperity and plenty. The other clutches an olive branch, representing peace.[15] Illustrations of the earliest presses show the eagle also clutching thunderbolts of Jupiter, but these is not present on any examples that survive.[17]

The side-columns of the press are decorated with a Caduceus, the symbol of Hermes the messenger of the gods in Greek mythology.[18] This alludes to the role of the printing press in the dissemination of knowledge.[17] 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".[16][11][13]

The serpent-like creatures on the press' levers are intended to be depictions of dolphins. They may represent wisdom[17] or knowledge.[14] Also, the dolphin was the mark of the famous early book printer, the Aldine Press.[16][14] The large main lever also carries a cartouche of flowers and fruit around an engraved, brass maker's plate.[19] 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.[8]

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.[10] Examples of Columbian presses can be currently found in 29 countries. Around half of the presses are in the United Kingdom.[10]

None of Clymer's earliest, American-made presses are thought to survive.[9] There are around 40 surviving presses made during Clymer's lifetime.[20] 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. ^ a b Moran (1973), p.61
  2. ^ a b c d Moran (1973), p.62-63
  3. ^ "Columbian press". National Museum of American History. Retrieved 1 January 2022.
  4. ^ "Printing Press - Clymer Dixon & Co., Columbian, 1851". Museums Victoria Collections. Retrieved 16 January 2022.
  5. ^ "Clymer, Dixon and Co". Grace's Guide. Retrieved 4 July 2018.
  6. ^ Clymer, George (1818). The Patent Columbian Printing Press. [A Prospectus, with Testimonials. With a Plate.] London: A. J. Valpy. p. 1. OCLC 774501138.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: date and year (link)
  7. ^ a b Moran (1973), p.64
  8. ^ a b Moran (1973), p.66
  9. ^ a b c "Columbian Iron Hand Press". Atelier S8. Retrieved 3 January 2022.
  10. ^ a b c "Remembering George Clymer and the Columbian hand press". Association of European Printing Museums. 17 February 2017. Retrieved 2 January 2022.
  11. ^ a b Moran (1973), p.67
  12. ^ Moran (1973), p.68
  13. ^ a b c Holland, Ann-Marie (14 August 2019). "Columbian Press Restoration". Retrieved 1 January 2022.
  14. ^ a b c d "1824 Columbian Press". International Printing Museum. Retrieved 1 January 2022.
  15. ^ a b c "Columbian press". National Museum of American History. Retrieved 1 January 2022.
  16. ^ a b c Barbour, Mark. "The Columbian Press (1824)". YouTube. Retrieved 2 January 2022.
  17. ^ a b c Moran (1973), p.59
  18. ^ bawp (7 August 2017). "Art Barn project – the Columbian printing press". Every Barn Tells a Story. Retrieved 2 January 2022.
  19. ^ Moran (1973), p.60
  20. ^ "Welcome to Howard Iron Works - Antique Printers and Bookbinders Machinery Restoration and Printing Museum". Retrieved 3 January 2022.
  21. ^ "Excellent fine art printmaking in Leicester & the East Midlands – Leicester Print Workshop". Retrieved 1 January 2022.
  22. ^ "'Columbian' printing press". Retrieved 1 January 2022.
  23. ^ Sullivan, James (17 March 2017). "A place in Haverhill to hold the presses - The Boston Globe". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 2 March 2022.
  24. ^ "Columbian Printing Press". National Museums Scotland. Retrieved 1 January 2022.
  25. ^ Small, Richard (25 August 2012). "Tokyo Printing Museum". Letterpresser. Retrieved 10 January 2022.
  26. ^ Schonherr, Johannes. "Printing Museum Tokyo". Japan Visitor.
  27. ^ "Columbian printing press, 1837. Science Museum Group Collection". Retrieved 1 January 2022.
  28. ^ "Baird's Print Shop". Retrieved 1 January 2022.
  29. ^ Raza, Shahana (3 November 2019). "In Tranquebar, Amidst the Shells and Singing Waves". The Wire. Retrieved 5 January 2022.
  30. ^ Venkatraman, Lakshmi (24 May 2018). "Home to a shared heritage". The Hindu. Retrieved 5 January 2022.

Further reading[edit]

  • 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]