Steam-Powered Vintage Printing Equipment

Printers' Hall recreates a steam-powered working print shop

| September 2009

The clanking racket of cast iron, the gentle hiss of a steam engine … the sounds of a unique exhibit at the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion are familiar to old iron enthusiasts.

Familiar and yet different – for the exhibit is at Printers’ Hall, the biggest working collection of antique printing equipment in the U.S.

The collection, a permanent exhibit at the show grounds in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, celebrates industrial equipment never seen or used on the farm (see “Antique Press Powered by Live Steam). But weekly newspapers printed on such equipment were for decades the lifeblood of farm towns from coast to coast and border to border.

“The local weekly newspaper was so important in the farm community of 100 years ago,” says Jim Daggs, a volunteer at Printers’ Hall. “They didn’t have TV or radio or Internet.”

Long the lion of the communications industry, newspapers – particularly large metro dailies – have suffered a massive blow in recent months. Many have folded; many more struggle to stay afloat in a flood of economic woes and competitive pressures from new media.

Community newspapers, though, stand firm. Catering to markets too small for the big players, they’ve survived and flourished. Today, nearly all are produced with sophisticated electronic equipment. But it wasn’t so long ago that clicking Linotypes, cantankerous presses and stationary engines brought the news to the farm.

The sound of the press

Jim Daggs grew up at the end of an era, but instead of embracing change, he dug in his heels and clung to the old ways. As a youth he hung out near a print shop. “I was intrigued by the sound of the press and the smell of the ink,” he recalls. “When I finally worked my way inside the shop, they taught me how to set type by hand.”

Utterly fascinated by the ancient equipment, Jim memorized the 90-character keyboard of the Linotype, a typesetting machine. During staffing shortages at the local newspaper, he was called out of school to work on the Linotype for nearly a week. One thing led to another, and soon he’d launched a printing operation from the basement of his dad’s business.

“When I was about 14, I bought a Chandler & Price hand-fed platen press for $25,” he recalls, “and eventually I got a small Linotype. Dad let me do it ‘as long as your grades are good.’” It was a good bargain: Jim kept his grades up, and later found the value of lessons learned in math, spelling, reading and English when he tackled newspaper work.

8/15/2014 11:37:30 AM

Wow I love the traditional methods of printing. You can just tell a lot more passion, commitment and hard work was involved. I work for a printing company myself and we do and other modern printing solutions and it is so much easier today then it was back then.