Colonial Printing Tools

The first printing press in the American colonies was in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1638, says historian William Reese. Printing technology changed little from the mid-17th century until after the American Revolution. Wood-framed screw presses were used to publish newspapers, handbills and pamphlets such as Thomas Paine's influential work, "Common Sense," that radicalized the Colonial Americans.

Fonts and Paper

Printers used paper laboriously made by hand from cotton and linen rags. The fonts they nearly exclusively used were created by English engraver and tool maker, William Caslon. Caslon's fonts are most associated with Colonial-era American printing, according to the Walden Font Company.


Type blocks were constructed of wood. Each had a raised letter on it. These were kept in a compartmental box. The compositor selected the blocks and formed words and sentences by placing the letters onto a composing stick, an iron rule that would keep the letters from shifting. These lines were placed into wooden cases, called galleys. When the galleys contained enough lines to make a full page, they were locked into a page-sized iron frame called a chase.


The chase was moved to the stone bed of the printing press. A worker, called the beater, used his tools to apply the ink. These were two ink balls he used to cover the chase with ink. The balls were stuffed with wool and covered with leather, and had long wooden handles. The beater spread a mixture of lampblack, black pigment and carbon, mixed with varnish over the type. The paper was placed in a cushioned frame. This was pulled down onto the chase.


The next tool used in the process was the press itself. The screw and the platen came into play. They were operated by the pressman. He pulled the levered handle to lower a heavy plate, called the platen. This was where the ink on the chase met the paper with 200 pounds of pressure. The printed sheet was left to dry and another was set.

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