Truth Be Told: Frontier Newspapers in the 1800s
Research is one of my favorite parts of the writing process, and I had such fun researching 19th-century frontier newspapers for my latest novel, Truth Be Told.
I was delighted to discover the Sharlot Hall Museum in Prescott features a printing press exactly like the one Amelia uses to print the Granite Springs Gazette.
There, I was able to get a closeup view of the way the press worked. Even the names of various parts of the press were intriguing—words like coffin, frisket, rounce, and tympan.
In case you’d like to brush up on your 1800s letterpress jargon…
A coffin is: the flat bed of the press where the typeset form is placed.
A frisket is: a thin metal frame that holds the paper in position during printing.
A rounce is: a crank on the left-hand side of the press (not visible in the picture above). Turning it rolls the coffin forward under the platen.
And a tympan is: a padded layer placed over the platen to cushion the paper being printed and equalize type pressure.
Every letter of every news story had to be set in a form by hand. Pieces of type were stored in type cabinets like the one you see here. Imagine not only having to find each letter as you needed it, but having to put every one of those pieces back after the paper was finished!
In the book, Amelia runs the press with the help of her able assistant, Homer Crenshaw. And printing a four-page weekly like the Gazette on a Washington Hand Press like the one pictured above was indeed a two-man operation.
After the pieces of type were set in the form—an ongoing process throughout the week—the inkman would use a brayer to transfer ink to the form while the pressman fastened a sheet of newsprint into position on the press, making sure it was in proper register.
The paper would then be laid down touching the type, and the pressman would crank the rounce, sending the coffin forward under the platen, where the pressman would haul on the lever to press the platen down, making an inked impression on the paper. The sheet of paper would be stripped out and hung to dry, and the process would begin again.
Working in a steady rhythm, the two could print 200 or so impressions—almost enough to distribute to the citizens of Granite Springs—in a couple of hours. The page form would be replaced with copy for the other two pages, and once the first set of papers were dry, the workers would repeat the steps until the second half of the paper was done. After a round of drying, that week’s issue would be ready to fold and deliver.
You can see a live demonstration of a Washington Hand Press similar to Amelia’s in the Gizmodo video, below:
What a difference between that process and the way I can press the “Print” button on my laptop and watch a 300-page manuscript roll out of my printer in just a few minutes!
Technological advances like this have affected our lives in so many ways. What are some of the “newfangled” ways of doing things you appreciate most? Are there any of the old-fashioned ways you wish hadn’t changed? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!
Until next time…