Beamish, Part 5: The 1900s Town – the Printer

Beamish, Part 5: The 1900s Town – the Printer

Part of a series of reviews on the open air living history museum in County Durham, UK. Other posts in this series are:

1 – a review of the 1940s Home Farm
2 – a review of the 1900s Pit Village 
3 – a review of the Colliery (Coal Mine)
4 – a review of Ravensworth Terrace, the residential section of the 1990s Town

Hands down, the Beamish printer was my favorite stop in the 1900s Town.  Located on the second floor above the newspaper office and stationer’s shop, we very nearly overlooked it. I’m so glad we didn’t!

However, the printer on the second floor was not the printer of the newspaper.  This printer produced posters, address cards, bills, and invoices. The print shop consisted of two distinct areas.  The composition side of the operations focused on creating the material (layout and design).The machining side focused on printing the images onto paper.

The Beamish printer operated several nineteenth century printing presses.  The Columbian Press, a very large and ornate machine invented in the US in 1813 was the oldest and biggest.  It worked by a series of levers.

Beamish printer 1900s town print shop living history
The Columbian Press, built in 1837

An 1863 Albion Press, which was the English version of the Columbian Press, also stands in the Beamish print shop. The Albion became more popular than the Columbia because of its lighter weight, simple action, and strength of impression.

The Arab Platen Press, built around 1900, started off as foot operated but was later adapted to include an electric motor.  With the motor, it was capable of churning out 1000 copies per hour.  Finally, the Wharfdale Flat Bed Press came along around 1870. It was best suited for small runs of printed material.

The gentleman working in the print shop the day we were there took obvious pleasure in telling visitors about the workings of the 1900s print shop.  He was fascinating!  He told us that it was not easy work – often requiring very long hours and physically demanding tasks.  Apprentices to the trade would start working in the shop around age 14.  Once they had put in seven years of working five and a half days per week, their training was complete. However, printers received a good rate of pay in comparison to other working class jobs.  Most earned a fixed rate plus a small rate per piece.

Looking around the shop at the composition side, I saw so many papers and letters and drawers.  Part of me just wanted to sit down and spend an hour or two checking everything out.

Beamish printer 1900s town print shop living history

beamish printer 1900s town print shop living history

beamish printer 1900s town print shop living history
A poster for a Christmas event at Beamish.

We received a brief introduction to the presses in the shop and were told about what the work was like back then.  Afterwards, it got even more interesting as the Beamish printer described how so many English phrases derived from print shop lingo.  For instance:

  • Letter blocks were stored in cases. The capitals went in the upper cases and the non-capitals went in the cases below.  This is why we speak of uppercase and lowercase letters.
  • If you’ve ever been told to mind your Ps and Qs, you know you should pay special attention to your behavior.  Not only are the lowercase letters p and q very similar in appearance, they are also stored in close proximity to each other. Therefore, typesetters had to take special care to make sure they did not mix up the letters.
  • Bodies of type filled a wooden frame, where an object called a quoin held them in place.  When you set the type and locked the words in place, you had “coined a phrase.”
  • In the UK the phrase “not the full shilling” describes someone who is stupid or crazy.  This phrase is linked to William Caxton, who pioneered the printing press in Britain.  He cast type to the height of an English shilling, so anything under that was “not the full shilling.”
  • The first powered printing press was installed to print The [London] Times in 1814. Because of the speed with which it could print, other newspapers needed to “keep up with The Times.”

If you go to Beamish, make sure you don’t overlook the print shop.  It’s easy to miss, but I’m sure you will find that it’s one of the most fascinating places in the 1900s town!

Beamish is located at postcode DH9 0RG in County Durham, England.  Telephone 0191 370 4000. Open daily at 10:00 AM except holidays.   Beamish recently received a £10.9 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to add a 1950s section, which should be open by 2021.

 

 

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