Farm Collector Blogs > First Things

All the News That's Fit to Print

by Leslie McManus

Tags: rural newspapers, steam engines, printing equipment,

Here at Farm Collector, it’s easy to keep a grip on our mission.

“Dedicated to the preservation of vintage farm equipment” is, after all, printed on the front cover of every issue. But it’s summer: What better time to stray off the beaten path?

Babcock printing press   
American Industrial Machinery Since 1870, C.H. Wendel
A Babcock country press from the 1880s. The working print shop display at Printers' Hall (on the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion grounds, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa) uses a Babcock press powered by a vertical steam engine.

And so it is that in the September 2009 issue we visit a different past — that of the weekly newspaper of 90 or 100 years ago. Don’t get nervous: We’re still talking cast iron machinery, line shafts and stationary steam engines. Like equipment on the farm, machinery in the print shop was big, heavy, cantankerous, noisy, dangerous and dirty. It was also elegantly designed, brilliantly conceived and often stupendously dependable.

The weekly newspaper not only delivered news to rural residents for whom no other media existed, it also often served as a small town’s printer. Need envelopes? Business forms? Tickets? Funeral programs? Wedding invitations? Sale bills? You’d talk to the boys at the newspaper’s job shop.

There you’d find sheer tonnage of cast iron designed to enhance and elevate the most fragile material imaginable: sheets of paper. Powered first by steam, later by line shafts and gas engines (and later still by electricity), Linotypes, presses, folders, trimmers and cutters made up an arsenal of equipment ready to meet any conceivable printing challenge.

For me, this is a sentimental journey. The dictionary defines “printer’s devil” as a trade apprentice. But among the pressmen at my father’s weekly newspaper, I am confident the term was used to describe the boss’s kid. A little girl in the print shop — hovering at the clacking Addressograph, sitting astride a massive roll of newsprint like a pony and rocking it gently, darting toward the press and grabbing just-printed sections just like the men did — was tolerated but not encouraged.

Times were different; no one thought to instruct a girl child in the intricacies of printing equipment. But memories loom clear decades later: the absolute danger of the massive paper cutter; the way eye contact and nods replaced speech when the press roared; the cacophony of sound that rose and fell in a bell curve, collapsing into the sweet quiet afterward when the paper was out for another week.

The country print shop is a relic of the past – unless, of course, you stray off the beaten path. Extra! Extra! Read all about Printers’ Hall in the September 2009 issue of Farm Collector!