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Printer and Binder

The Printing Office & Post Office

The Printing Office & Post Office on Duke of Gloucester Street.

Each letter had to be set individually on the printing press.

Each letter had to be set individually on the printing press.

Type is set by hand in a painstaking process.

Press powerful in colonial times

Thomas Jefferson's "Ideas on American Freedom" was first printed on Clementina Rind's hand-pulled press.

It was a document Jefferson had drafted at Monticello for the guidance of Virginia's delegates to the Continental Congress. The colony's House of Burgesses considered the composition too radical for official endorsement, but a group of Jefferson's friends persuaded the Widow Rind to issue it as a pamphlet. Thus A Summary View of the Rights of British America appeared in August 1774. The future author of the Declaration of Independence later wrote:

"If it had any merit, it was that of first taking our true ground, and that which was afterwards assumed and maintained."

It was just one Revolutionary demonstration of the printer's power to spread incendiary views. But it still may be the most historically important job to come off a Williamsburg press since William Parks set up the first one in 1730.

Parks started Virginia's first newspaper

Parks came from Maryland to do government printing and commercial work. Six years later, he started Virginia's first newspaper. With the advice and investment of Philadelphia's Benjamin Franklin, Parks opened Virginia's first paper mill in 1743. Four years later, he became the first printer in the 140-year-old colony to publish a volume on its beginnings – The History of the First Discovery and Settlement of Virginia by William Stith. Success in the printing business required diversification.

Print shop served multiple purposes

Parks' double-bay-windowed shop served as a stationer's, a post office, an advertising agency, an office supply shop, a newsstand, and a bookbindery. He sold magazines and books, maps and almanacs,and even sealing wax! His press printed broadsides and business forms, laws and proclamations, tracts and blank record books. In the 20th century, while excavating the site of Parks' shop, archaeologists found lead border ornaments used for French and Indian War currency.

Archaeologists also uncovered hundreds of bits of metal type, apparently of Dutch origin. Colonial printers imported cases of type from European foundries, but molding casting replacement letters on site from lead and antimony took no extraordinary skill.

Hours of labor required to produce Virginia Gazette

Parks' Virginia Gazette, published weekly from 1736 to 1750, was perhaps his most durable achievement, and among the most labor intensive. Setting type for one page of the weekly newspaper required 25 hours of hand labor.

"The Hands employed by the Printer are the Compositor and Pressman, which are two distinct Branches, the one knowing little of the other's Business," wrote a Parks contemporary. "The Compositor is he who arranges the Letters and makes up the Forms; the Pressman only works at the Press, takes off the Impression, and requires no other Qualification than Strength and a little Practice."

A compositor gathered type, sorted by letter, size, and kind, from a compartmented box. He set each letter on an iron rule, called a "composing stick," to form words and lines. The type had to be set "backwards," as printing reversed the images.

When several lines were done, the compositor set them in wooden cases called galleys. Sometimes woodcuts were added to illustrate notices and advertisements. The galleys were tied with string, gathered and locked in a page-size iron frame, or "chase," and secured to the stone bed of the press. A carriage carried the chase back and forth beneath a pressure plate, or "platen."

A fellow called a "beater" used two wood-handled, wool-stuffed, leather-covered ink balls to spread a mixture of varnish and lampblack evenly on the type. Moistened sheets of paper were laid in a cushioned frame that hinged down on the chase, and the carriage was run in. Mounted on a screw about the size of a man's forearm and operated by a long-handled lever, the platen was lowered by the pressman, or puller.

Each sheet was squeezed against the type under about 200 pounds of pressure to receive its impression, then set aside to dry before the other side was printed. Each impression required about 15 seconds. The workday lasted up to 14 hours.

The printer proofreads a page fresh from the 18th-century printing press.

Williamsburg residents supported production of the newspaper

A community of about 2,000, Williamsburg had plenty of readers to keep the press going. Parks' newspaper was succeeded by another Virginia Gazette, and by the time of the Revolution three newspapers competed under the same name. A Virginia Gazette still serves the city of Williamsburg today.

Books required more labor and time to produce

Books were more time-consuming and complicated to produce. They were printed in signatures of four, eight, 12, or 16 pages – two or more pages on each side of a sheet that, when folded and cut, presented the text in the proper order for binding.

A bookbinder compiled the signatures and beat them with a heavy hammer to make the sheets lie close. He arranged them on a sewing frame and stitched them together at the back fold with linen thread. As he sewed, he looped the strands around thick hemp cross threads, which created characteristic horizontal ridges across the spine and unified the assembly.

Bookbinder Bruce Plumley uses colonial techniques to bind a book.

Book covers involved many steps and specialized craftsmanship

Dyed leather was drawn onto boards and glued to heavier endpaper to cover the volume. Sometimes the endpapers were marbled. All of the marbled paper used in Williamsburg seems to have been imported from England, where such work was a craft in itself.

Marbling required a small tank and a mixture of water and a syrupy gum. The marbler dripped vivid watercolors onto the surface and drew special combs across it to create distinctive swirls and eddies. An endpaper was laid on the surface to take up the watercolor, then removed and dried.

The covers of better books were made of fine leather that was tooled, stamped, and decorated with designs sometimes rendered in gold leaf.

In the historic area today, the Printing Office, Post Office, and Bookbindery are located in one area where press trades are interpreted and authentic reproduction items from Parks' reconstructed shop are offered for sale.