The Columbian Press – “phantasmagoria in cast iron”

It is a rare event when an assiduous researcher from a different corner of the world makes contact with a rare book librarian, and that the two benefit equally regarding their work in progress. A recent exchange with Mr. Bob Oldham of Ad Lib Press, who is currently conducting a worldwide census of Columbian hand presses in observance of this year’s 200th anniversary of their invention by George Clymer, is clearly an expert on the subject matter and offered some new facts about its manufacture. At this stage of our contact, Mr. Oldham is investigating our Columbian Press which will be recorded in his detailed census as well as in the North American Hand Press Database.

Columbian Press in William Savage's, Practical Hints on Decorative Printing, 1822.

Columbian Press in
William Savage’s, Practical Hints on Decorative Printing, 1822.

Our Columbian Press is one of five presses that the McGill University Library owns. It is without a doubt the most alluring of all the presses. It stands proudly on the fourth floor of the McLennan Library Building, in the corridor off the stairway.

This press was invented by the American engineer George Clymer of Philadelphia in 1813.  According to Mr. Oldham, “Clymer manufactured and sold about 20 of them in the USA until about May 1817, when he sailed for England to try the more stable printing press market there. He obtained a patent in England in November 1817 and built at least 415 presses in England under his own name until 1830. Clymer died in 1834, and his patent expired either just before or shortly after his death. At this point, there were many companies which began offering their version of the Columbian in England.  By the 1850s there were many competing companies selling Columbians. It was a very popular press for about 80 years.”

As for the design of the press, Clymer incorporated iron-casting techniques for its manufacture. It is lavishly ornamented with symbolic pieces in bronze and gilt such as the serpents on the levers which emblematize the virtue of wisdom, and the imperial eagle atop with extended wings representing might and power, clutching an olive tree branch and a horn of plenty, representing peace and abundance.  Former University Librarian of McGill University, Richard Pennington called it “phantasmagoria in cast iron” in his Account of the Redpath Press, 1977.

In this same account by Richard Pennington, we learn about the provenance of our Columbian Press. It was reportedly discovered in a basement in Fetter Lane, London, which had been “opened up by WWII bombardments” and re-located from London, England to Montreal Canada in 1957. It was determined to be a pre-1824 model and therefore probably manufactured by Clymer when he was in England due to the fact that the first type of these presses had the bar pivoted on the off or far side of the frame. In the post- 1824 model, sources say that this flaw was remedied so that “ the bar was placed nearer the hand of the pressman.” It occurred in both locations in 1820 and 1828, according to Mr. Oldham, so dating can be problematic.

An inauguration of the presses took place  on the 6th of December, 1957 in the presence of an illustrious crowd. An introduction was pronounced by Dr. Cyril James, former Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University, who praised the utility of presses for instruction to Library School students. In attendance was an astounding array of academics and donors to McGill which is a testimony to Pennington’s professional credibility. From the Account of the Redpath Press we cite: ” John Bland of the School of Architecture; William Colgate, the donor of the Printing Collection [and who helped the University acquire much of the machinery and set up the printing office that would become the Redpath Press]; Peter Collins, the writer on the aesthetics of architecture; Sidney T. Fisher, the electronics engineer and Shakespeare collector; Raymond Klibanksy, the philosopher and mediaevalist [and now the donor of a major collection on philosophy and the history of ideas]; Dr. Wilder Penfield; and Lawrence Lande, the donor of the Lande Library of Canadiana.”

We are most proud to house this historic monument to typography and scholarship.