August 20

In a letter addressed to the typefounder George Bruce on this day in 1855 Joel Munsell, the Albany printer and typographic historian, asked for precise information concerning the construction of the Ramage printing press, probably the most widely used press in America during the first thirty years of the 19th century. Nearly every account of the establishment of a printing office in that period mentions the Ramage, and during the westward expansion up to the Civil War the Ramage was the major piece of equipment of the pioneer printers in many of the western states.

Adam Ramage was a Scotsman who arrived in Philadelphia in 1795 and began to construct wooden printing presses there, being the first to engage in such a business as a professional in the United States. Presses based upon European models had been constructed in America by carpenters, but in most cases merely to supply local demand. Ramage successfully met the needs of the expanding printing industry for presses just as his fellow Scotsmen, Archibald Binny and James Ronaldson, did for type at the same time when they started the first successful typefoundry.

A description of this popular press and its operation was written by Edwin Scrantom of Rochester, New York and appeared in the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle in 1871:

“The press was formed by two heavy upright pieces of timber, standing about seven feet high, called the ‘cheeks,’ which stood three or four feet apart, and were held together by a cross piece at top and bottom. Running through the center of the cheeks was a carriage way, or ‘ribs,’ resting on another crosspiece called the ‘winter piece! These rib pieces, conveniently set apart one from the other, extended out each side of the press of sufficient length to accommodate the ‘bed’ to run backward and forward when the printer was working off the form he was engaged in, whether of book, handbill, or newspaper. Next is the ‘bed’ of the press, which ran out and in on the ribs, and which received the form of the type that was made up to be printed. This bed ran on straight, polished ribs of steel, the ribs being the same, and both were oiled. To the bed were attached two frames with joints—the larger one that folded down on the form, and on which the unprinted sheet was laid, was the ‘tympan,’ and the upper one, that folded down on the tympan, and held the sheet while it was being printed was the ‘frisket! Now to make the impression, a large screw with a coarse thread was placed in a box and that box was fastened into a crosspiece between the cheeks, called the ‘summer piece! The screw, which worked in the box, had a long point and worked in the center of a square follower, which was kept in its place by springs, and was called the ‘platen! Fixed to the screw immediately under the ‘winter piece’ [summer piece] was a lever of iron, crooked in a half circle at the eye where it was attached to the screw, and had a long bar, the end of which was supplied with a large, round, wood handle. This bar swung transversely across the press from side to side, so as to give the power of the screw, and when the press was in repose its place was against the back of the press, where it was held by a ‘stop.’ “

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