Steam-Powered Vintage Printing Equipment

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Jim Daggs makes final adjustments to a Babcock cylinder press at Printers’ Hall before printing that day’s edition of "The Threshers Bee."
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A slug of type set on a Linotype, nearly ready to print. The headline reads “Survival Guide for Rainy Days.”
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A broadside on display at Printers’ Hall. Early printers composed elegant, elaborate pieces like this to demonstrate their skills to customers.
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A Babcock country press from the 1880s.
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Pulls from antique type cabinet drawers, part of a collection displayed at Printers’ Hall.
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Volunteer Howard Dalrymple setting type on an Intertype typesetting machine.
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Scrap lead ready to be melted into ingots like those at back.
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Alice Rohrssen keeps a close watch for the pressman’s signal as she adjusts the vertical steam engine powering the Babcock press. The 6 hp engine is estimated to date to the 1880s; the engine’s manufacturer is unknown.
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Another broadside at Printers’ Hall.
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Setting up the Babcock, with a 2-page spread on the composition table in the foreground. The process requires a deft touch and infinite patience. “You’re running a thin sheet of newsprint through cast iron machinery,” says pressman Jim Daggs.

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.

A summer spent working as a relief operator at a large print shop and a stint as production manager during the shop’s conversion to “cold type” (see “Hot Type, Cold Type: Read All About It) gave him unique mastery of printing equipment at a young age. But he wasn’t sold on the new technology. “I wanted to get away from the scissors and paste pot,” he says. “So I took a job printing on a letterpress at a newspaper in Ackley, Iowa. We were told then that we were the only newspaper in the country to go back to letterpress after printing on offset.”

Cantankerous cast iron

It was a rich education. “I was publishing a weekly newspaper, I had no formal training and the bulk of the subscribers were farmers,” Jim says. “We printed the things that farmers were interested in. I’d interview the guys at the elevator, and we ran the local market news, land transactions, yield results, 4-H news and country correspondence. In a farm community, the town goes as the farmers go.”

Jim bought part of the business, and then the whole operation. Meanwhile he continued to accumulate letterpress equipment. Knowing how to run it was half the battle; keeping it running was an equal challenge.

“A lot of that old printing equipment was made of cast iron, and when it broke, a lot of welders wouldn’t touch it,” Jim says. “I worked with a farmer who had his own shop with a forge, and he did a beautiful job on repairs. You could keep that old machinery going with a welder and a fair machine shop.”

Most small weekly newspapers had little time to conduct preventive maintenance on their equipment, and print shop tools were often ill-suited to the need. “A lot of printers let things slide,” Jim says. “Printers were known for cobbling stuff together. Sometimes you’d find a patch that had been left in place for 40 years.”

In an era before overnight delivery, replacement parts were slow to arrive, necessitating other arrangements. “When there was a breakdown and there were no parts, you’d call another newspaper and ask if they’d print for you,” he says. The neighborly ways of farm country prevailed in town as well. “The other printer could have been a competitor,” Jim says, “but he’d help you out.”

March of progress

The Linotype became commercially available in the late 1890s, but nearly 30 years would pass before it was a common fixture at the country weekly, where type was handset, letter by letter, until after World War I. Early equipment was sold with steam engines and later with gas engines. Line shafts were widely used to distribute power to multiple devices, often filling two floors of a building.

In the early 1920s, an era when stationary gas engines were near their peak and tractor development was just taking off, the typical small town print shop consisted of a couple of job presses, a 2- or 4-page press, folder, type cabinets (one for plain type, one for “fancy”), a re-melting furnace for the Linotype’s lead and a casting box. Job presses generated a much needed revenue stream: Printers stayed busy with funeral folders, sale bills, wedding invitations, stationary and envelopes, tickets, and business forms.

Just as their brethren on the farm wrangled with potentially vicious devices, printers and Linotype operators worked daily with dangerous equipment. “There were lots of fingers lost to gears and folders,” Jim says. “I remember one old guy telling me, ‘Remember: a sheet of paper is cheaper to replace than a finger.’ I’ve heard some horrible stories, especially about big presses. And there were always the burns. Molten lead and water don’t mix. One of my first jobs was re-melting scrap lead to form ingots, and I’ve got scars as a reminder.”

Between deadlines, equipment malfunctions and independent-minded workers, running a newspaper or print shop had its share of frustrations. “You always hear stories about old printers and publishers being big drinkers,” Jim says. “I never succumbed to that but I could sure understand it.”

End of an era

The 1950s was a golden era for small rural newspapers, and many began to make the move to web offset printing. In that technology, a continuous roll of newsprint passes through a press before pages are separated and cut. By the 1970s, most Linotypes had been relegated to back rooms, and sheet-fed presses were used only for small jobs or were abandoned altogether.

As often happens, the transition to modern technology left people in its wake. In the case of offset printing, Lin­otype operators and “tramp” printers simply vanished from the landscape. “A lot of them were bachelors. And the Linotype operators were an especially goofy bunch,” Jim says, shaking his head at the memory. “Some of the old printers wouldn’t get their pay until 5 p.m.: If you paid them at noon, they wouldn’t be back.”

The tramp printer was an itinerant worker whose only connection with a tramp or hobo was his wanderlust. In fact, tramp printers traveled to find work. Some anticipated a print shop’s seasonal spike. More than a few were well familiar with regular printers’ vacation schedules and would appear just in time to take the reins, work a week or two and move on. “They’d always find work somewhere,” Jim marvels. “I remember the last one that came through Ackley. He was a crusty old guy in a dark wool suit and black hat. He came in and asked if I had something for an old printer to do. That was in about 1975.”

Today, Jim operates a functioning letterpress (a very rare undertaking) alongside digital technology and high-speed multi-color presses at his printing company in Ackley, Iowa. And for one week every summer, he returns to work at the print shop of the past at Printers’ Hall. “Sometimes I wonder if I’m the last person to delve into this old stuff,” he muses. “I can remember a printer telling me years ago, ‘Don’t waste your time on this old junk: It’s going out.’ But you really do get ink in your veins.” FC

For more information: Jim Daggs, (641) 847-2623;
Watch the Printers’ Hall Babcock press in action on Farm Collector‘s YouTube channel: “Babock Press at Printers’ Hall.”
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