Columbian Press

The Columbian iron hand press was invented in 1813 by George Clymer (1754–1834), a Philadelphia mechanic. From about 1800 Clymer built wooden presses and versions of new iron presses from Europe. The extravagant design, incorporating levers and counterweights, was quite original, but Clymer did not find a market in the United States. Perhaps printers were not ready to give up their old wooden presses. He moved to England in 1818 and acquired a partner. By the 1840s their presses were being manufactured by several dozen firms across Europe, including Ritchie & Son of Edinburgh, which made this press about 1860. It is a super-royal Columbian and its platen size is 21 by 29 inches.
Clymer's Columbian presses were widely used in European printing offices during the 19th century, and today they are found in a number of European museums. Although Clymer made several dozen presses before leaving Philadelphia, no American Columbians are known to survive. The only Columbians in the U.S. today were made in Europe and brought over here some time later. American printers preferred the Washington iron hand press, which occupied the place in 19th-century American printing offices that the Columbian and Albion presses held in Britain.
The Columbian press is covered with symbols, including its name as a reference to the United States. An American eagle in full relief serves as a counterweight at the top of the frame. He holds in his talons Jove's thunderbolts combined with the olive branch of peace and the cornucopia of plenty. The press was adopted in 1819 as the emblem of Washington, D.C.'s Columbia Typographical Society, a local union of journeyman printers, and it represented their republican sentiments both in the larger political sense and as their expression of pride and independence in their craft. The Society met at the "Press and Eagle" Tavern, and members carried banners emblazoned with images of the Columbian press in their parades.
Currently not on view
Object Name
press, printing
Date made
ca 1860
Ritchie & Son
Physical Description
iron (overall material)
overall: 89 in x 53 in x 66 in; 226.06 cm x 134.62 cm x 167.64 cm
Place Made
United Kingdom: Scotland, Edinburgh
ID Number
accession number
catalog number
Industry & Manufacturing
See more items in
Culture and the Arts: Graphic Arts
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
Credit Line
Gift of Taylor & Taylor, 1961
Related Publication
Harris, Elizabeth M.. Printing Presses in the Graphic Arts Collection

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