What is the common press?

There used to be a lot of them around – hence the name. I am not sure when they supplanted Gutenberg’s original design of printing press, but it was some time in the 16th century, and so successful was the “two-pull” mechanism, that the style endured all the way through to the early 19th century when iron took over in the shape of the Stanhope Press.
In 1978, a helpful book, “The Common Press” by Elizabeth M Harris and Clinton Sisson was published by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC.
Its full title is actually “Common Press: Being a Record, Description and Delineation of the Early Eighteenth Century Handpress in the Smithsonian Institution”, and its inspiration was the exhibit held by the Smithsonian, a wooden hand press supposed to have been used by Benjamin Franklin in the 1720s during a stint as a journeyman printer in London. The press was studied and replicated; then the instructions and plans to ‘make your own’ were given. Everything from how to cut the wood, how to forge the iron, how to prepare the tympan and frisket…all included.
Since then, several institutions and individuals in the UK and elsewhere have taken advantage of this ready-made research to build their own common presses. I can think of the Tom Paine Press in Lewes, the replica in the Amberley Museum, and in the USA Texas A&M University has one. There is also an example in the British Library, and a few years ago it was possible to go into the basement there and visit a 16th century print shop, coming away with a souvenir 16o pamphlet. Sadly, this great enterprise fell out of favour and the last time I visited the Library, in August this year, the press was to be found unloved and ignored, grudgingly given a space round the back of the cloakroom and next to the toilets….well, at least a lot of Library visitors still get to see it that way, even though they have no idea what it is.
So if the British Library has no use for a replica common press, what would I do with one, as a private individual living in an ordinary house?
Perhaps many people have the experience of starting a project that turned out to be way bigger than they ever realised it would be at the beginning. Thus it was with me. My hobby is re-enacting with the English Civil War Society, and in 1994 I’d seen a press at an event and found it fascinating. I hadn’t seen the press since then, so I thought it would be a great thing to revive 17th century printing demonstrations, and wouldn’t be treading on anyone’s toes. My husband liked the idea of the building project and we started out. A re-enacting friend in Leeds had tried the idea before, and had the remains of an attempt at a guessed design in their basement. We bought it from them and then realised it was useless. Proper research was needed!
We got hold of a copy of the above book, as well as a copy of Moxon’s “Mechanick Exercises on the Whole Art of Printing”. We travelled to Antwerp to look at the wooden presses at the Plantin-Moretus Museum. Then that same friend in Leeds directed us to another friend, in Norfolk. A carpenter by trade, Paddy Murfitt was able not only to build the wooden parts of the press, but adapted it so that it would come apart for travelling. A blacksmith made the large iron handle; the screw was adapted from a Norton flypress by another re-enactor  – he bartered the work for a second world war tent that we happened to have. A chap interested in leather working constructed the straps that attach to the rounce, and the marble that lies in the part of the press known as the ‘coffin’ , was, appropriately, a rejected gravestone.
All the while that this was going on, I was also collecting trays, boxes, tools and above all type. By a lucky chance for me, Caslon’s have their premises only a couple of miles from my house and Roy Caslon was very helpful in furnishing type, sundries and valuable advice. Many others have helped and encouraged me, including two former members of the English Civil War Society who were also members of the British Printing Society: Tony Mugridge and Robert Prothero-Jones, who is the owner of the “Free Press” that was my original inspiration in the 1990s.
The press came out for the first time at a re-enactment event at the Royal Gunpowder Mills in 2009. However, it is only this year that I have been able to use the press at home; our old shed was in disrepair and my husband built a new workshop for me on the spot, after pulling down the old shed and evicting the giant frog who was living under the floor. The press still travels though and in 2015 we hope to have the press working, sometimes under canvas, at Forty Hall in Enfield , Chippenham in Wiltshire, and Aardvark Books at Brampton Bryan, Herefordshire. It’s still a work in progress, and I think I will carry on learning about printing until the end of my life.

4 thoughts on “What is the common press?

  1. I was impressed by the exhibit of a spring pole lathe by Mr. Toone at the New Jersey History fair. It is a large wooden framed device (like the common press), that is not normally portable. This one is partially disassembled and travels by way of pick up truck. I look forward to your discussion of how you made yours portable and what gets taken apart or stays assembled.

    • Sorry for late reply, I’ve been away. I’ll try and take some pics at the weekend as it’s presently in its partly disassembled state. Basically there is a solid core composed of the cap, cheeks, summer, winter and hind-posts, which looks a bit like a giant chair. The bits that come away are: a/ribs and rounce, with the girths that pull the coffin in and out; b/coffin and stone; c/forestay; d/screw, garter and hose;e/tympan and frisket. The ribs sit on the frame, the coffin is put on top, and then we have an iron clamp which keeps the ribs and coffin together. This also has a loop to put the girth through. It’s not historic, but Moxon says the old practce was to nail and re-nail continually which would soon cause damage. The tympan and frisket are attached to the coffin with two plates and the forestay is screwed on – always using the same holes, this is not destructive.

      • Thank you for the reply. I look forward to the pictures. I will be moving my project forward. Any helpful suggestions will be most welcome. I continue to line up information and resources. Friend with iron foundry will help me make various metal bits.

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