The highly ornamented Columbian Press

Columbian Press EngravingThe Columbian is by far the most lavishly decorated of all iron handpresses, although it must be noted that many of the embellishments function perfectly well as the working parts of the Press. The English writer T. C. Hansard once commented (shortly after the first Columbian Presses appeared in London) that: “If the merits of a machine were to be appreciated wholly by its ornamental appearance, certainly no other press could enter into competition with the Columbian”.

Invented in 1813 by the American George Clymer, the Columbian Press was one of the first iron printing presses and had a notable advantage over other iron handpresses, of that period. Clymer’s innovative and powerful combination of levers greatly increased the pressure that could be applied to the printing forme, without causing undue physical strain to the pressman.

Columbian Dolphin

The following description of the ornamentations on the Columbian Press is written by V. C. N. Blight CBE and taken from his publication entitled ‘The Columbian Press’, first published in 1962.

“At the time Clymer was perfecting his invention the United States was an infant nation and the very name Columbian was possibly a patriotic gesture. Even more so was the American eagle which perches defiantly with outstretched wings and open beak on the main counterbalance lever. The eagle is no mere ornament. It is the counterbalance weight, adjustable by sliding along the main counterbalance lever. For practical purposes a lump of lead would have sufficed, but to George Clymer’s way of thinking the job could be done properly only by the American eagle.

Columbian Eagle

In its talons the eagle clutches a flight of Jove’s thunderbolts, representing war, and the olive branch of peace and the cornucopia or Horn of Plenty, signifying prosperity.

Columbian Moon and Thunderbolt

A similar alliance between utility and ornamentation pervades the whole Press. The main counterbalance lever becomes at one end an arrow which rests in the horns of the crescent moon; at the other end it is coiled into the form of a dolphin whose open jaws conveniently hold the hook of the bridle connecting it with the upper end of the great lever. Another heraldic dolphin (or similar sea creature) is extended along the upper front of the great lever.

Columbian Serpent

The two pillars of the staple are embellished with the caduceus, the winged staff and intertwined serpents of Hermes. The right-hand pillar also bears near the top a conventional ear of wheat.

Columbian Hermes

Around the nameplate on the face of the great lever on the original Columbian Clymer twined a rattlesnake, the emblem of the original thirteen colonies. After his migration to England he replaced this with a more elaborate but purely decorative design.

Columbian Press FootIn contrast with the Stanhope Press, the staple of which was merely bolted to a solid base, the Columbian stands on four iron legs terminating in moulded feet which can be accepted as the paws of a lion or the talons of an eagle, according to the taste of the observer.

In the United Kingdom most of the embellishments were retained – the New South Wales Government Printing Office Columbian, built in London in 1849, has them all except the rattlesnake – but some manufacturers substituted a globe or a lion standing on a laurel wreath for the eagle. On the Continent, the makers took more liberties with the design. Some German shops turned the eagle into a Prussian eagle. French variations included the lion and laurel wreath or globe as a counterbalance weight; a great lever embellished with a figure representing La Belle France and pillars with an obelisk motif instead of the caduceus. Others dispensed almost entirely with decoration, probably with the intention of modernising the appearance of the machine for which they were unable to devise any mechanical improvements.”

Columbian Plate


  1. Ergo
    Posted May 18, 2009 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

    Thanks – and this is a really great blog, fascinating stuff. I’m a little obsessed by typography so it is a pleasant surprise indeed…

  2. rajesh
    Posted September 30, 2011 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    Anybody knows the real price of 1875 model Columbian Press please tell me.

  3. Posted October 20, 2011 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

    Wow! That’s one nice looking press! Why don’t they make em like that anymore?

  4. Posted December 29, 2011 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    i have one machine Columbian Press made in 1869 london make

  5. MohanaKrishnan G.O
    Posted February 14, 2012 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    We have one Columbian eagle press with us in Kerala,India(135 years Old)

  6. Posted November 4, 2013 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    I have a photo which I believe shows you pulling the Columbian hand press at Wingfield Old College in Suffolk. Can you help me with the ID of that press? Thanks!

3 Trackbacks

  1. [...] Knopp over at the Typoretum has posted some marvellous photos of the ornamentation on a Columbian hand press, with a short [...]

  2. [...] with an entry on one of the most ornate printing presses I think I have ever seen. It is the Columbian Press and it was made in 1813 in the US by George Clymer. Not only was it highly funtional, it was one of [...]

  3. [...] ulti­mately proved more pop­u­lar in the United Kingdom. You can read more about its typ­ical appear­ance and dec­or­a­tion and of how it oper­ates. The restored Grand Gallery of the National Museum of Scotland in [...]

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