19th-Century Printing

The Printer's Job

Books made up the bulk of what was printed in most rural printing offices. Most of these books were not destined for local markets, but instead printed under contract for urban publishing houses. While some were bound in covers for sale locally and in the surrounding towns, most were shipped away "in sheets" (that is, unbound sheets of paper packed into wooden crates that were later sewn and glued into covers near to the point of sale).

Most shops also did custom "job printing," producing advertisements, notices, pamphlets, legal forms, labels, and other small items. Few rural printers successfully published newspapers.

Comprehensive times vary, but a skilled compositor could set type at a rate of about 1,000 characters per hour. (Each letter, space, and piece of punctuation was chosen and set individually.) Three men working the press together (one to ink the type, one to hang the sheets to dry, and one to operate the press) could produce about 240 sheets per hour. Of course other incidental tasks also took time: sheets took a day to dry; type had to be cleaned and resorted after use; etc.

Printing seems to have been a full-time job in 1830s New England. The high cost of equipment made part-time printing impractical. The length of a workday varied by the seasons and thus the amount of available daylight, as well as the amount of business a shop had. Workdays of 10 to 12 hour days were the norm, however.

A successful printing office was a busy place. While the number of workers in rural printing offices varied, a shop this size might employ between 6 to 9 people. Imagine several men and boys in the composing room setting type, making up forms, taking proofs, or distributing used type, while up to three more ran the press. In the front room a bookbinder or two (either male or female) might be hard at work sewing and trimming the pages of books, or selling books or stationery supplies to customers.

The Ink

Printers' ink was a mixture of linseed oil, rosin, and lampblack (carbon soot). Printers in the 1830s bought their ink and did not commonly make it themselves. The price varied widely, depending upon quality. Black was the most common ink, partially because it was much cheaper than colored inks.

At the end of every day, the type had to be cleaned so that ink on it did not dry and leave a mess. It was placed in a "lye trough" (the tilted box in the pressroom) and scrubbed with caustic lye (made from potash and water) to remove all ink.

The Paper

There were eight paper mills in Worcester County, Massachusetts in the 1830s, with more in other parts of New England. Printers purchased paper from one or more of these manufacturers. Paper in early America was made from old, ground-up cotton or linen rags until the 1860s, when a technique for using wood pulp instead of rags began to be employed. Today the best paper is still made from rags, including that used for paper money. (Your modern dollar bill was once just old rags!)

The Press & Type

Robert Hoe & Company of Bronx, New York built the cast iron Peter Smith Patent press sometime between 1824 and 1835. Originally it may have cost about $300, plus shipping (perhaps $50), or about what a journeyman printer earned in a year.

19th-century printers bought their type from type foundries in Boston, New York, or other cities. Smaller type was cast in molds from a metallic alloy of lead, tin, and antimony, called type metal. Very large letters were carved from wood, to save weight.

Research of surviving documents suggests that rural printing offices may have had between 15 and 20 different typefaces, or fonts. A font of type is a selection of characters of the same size and style. Fonts had more of frequently used letters such as "e" and fewer of little-used letters such as "z".

Type is stored in compartmentalized type cases, in racks in the composing room. A printer had to know precisely where each letter was located in the case when setting type, and return each one to its proper place when done.

After type is set in the composing room, it is made into a single unit (called a "form") by securely wedging it in place within a strong iron frame (called a "chase"). This entire form is then carried to the press. Thus changing the type on the press involves replacing one form with another.

Although photography had not yet been invented, early 19th-century printers could reproduce hand-drawn pictures. A man called an engraver carefully cut a negative image into a flat sheet of wood or metal, which could then be inked and printed from like type. Type foundries sometimes made multiple copies (called "stereotype plates") of popular illustrations, and sold them commercially.


A journeyman printer earned between $1.00 and $1.50 a day in 1830s New England. (How much the owner made depended upon how successful the business was!)

By comparison, an annual subscription to a weekly newspaper cost $2.00, while books ranged from 35¢ (for a spelling textbook) to $6.00 or more for a well-bound Bible. It might take thousands of dollars to set up even a modest printing office, a considerable sum at the time.


As with many other trades, a printer usually learned his trade as an apprentice. Usually beginning work in their teens, boys learned "the art and mystery" of a printer by working in a printing office like this. At first they ran errands, cleaned type, lit the fire, swept up, and hung printed sheets of paper to dry. As they grew they learned other skills and eventually learned all aspects of the trade. The length of an apprenticeship was not regulated, although it ended when a boy reached his majority at the age of 21. He could then find a job for full wages as a journeyman printer.

Traditionally an apprentice received no pay, but lived with the owner of the business and became a part of the master's family. He traded his labor for food, clothing, shelter, and a practical education. This system was breaking down by the 1800s, however. Some masters no longer took apprentices into their homes, but instead paid for their room and board elsewhere. Others paid apprentices for piecework done beyond a normal day's work. Some shops began to pay "half wages" when a boy turned 18 in an effort to discourage older apprentices from running away to find a paying job. More and more young men and boys were "on their own" with money in their pockets but without adult supervision much of the time, resulting in all sorts of social problems.


Many printing offices, including the one at OSV, kept a store "for the country trade." Books available for sale not only included those printed and bound in covers locally but those printed elsewhere and exchanged or taken in trade with other printers and publishers. Such stores often sold stationery supplies as well as books.

Other books were sold wholesale to country stores within a 20 to 30 mile radius. Stores often paid for these books in credit or merchandise, since cash was in short supply in the early 1800s.

Most books were not bound and sold locally, however, but were instead shipped to other printers, urban publishers, or distant bookbinders "in sheets" (loose pages packed in wooden crates). These were then bound in covers closer to the final point of retail sale.

Books ranges in price from as little as 35¢ to several dollars. The average book cost about a dollar, or close to a day's wages.