The Platen Press
In 1847, Richard March Hoe patented a rotary press powered by steam. This was a commercial printing press that could produce millions of imprints per day. A distinct forking of the path emerged at that point between letterpress printers, used for small runs by hobbyists. These presses, called platen presses or “jobbers,” were the primary means for producing political pamphlets by individual citizens. The divergence from commercial printing affected the culture of the political pamphlet in a profound manner – where the commercial printers’ primary motive was profit, the pamphleteer’s was necessarily something different. The commercial printer has traditionally invested in a large number of prints on the expectation that they will sell and make back the cost of production, plus profit. Pamphleteers, on the other hand, put a relatively small investment upfront for a relatively small number of pamphlets. The way each achieved reach was fundamentally different, and to a large extent, the technology – the rotary or the patent press – determined how its users approached their own conceptions of readers and readership.
From the mid 19thcentury until the 1930’s, the primary platform used short runs and also non-standard sizes of paper. This made the platen press the ideal medium to produce the political pamphlet. These presses were called “jobbers,” and there were several different makes and models. Almost all of them, however, were based on the design of George Phineas Gordon, whose first press was sold in 1851. The press was alternately referred to as the Franklin, and the Gordon Jobber. In 1872, aware that his patent would expire, Gordon developed a new version. Henceforth, there was the Franklin (or Gordon) Oldstyle, and Newstyle. These presses were capable of producing twice as many impressions per hour as the handpress, the predecessor of the jobber.
The political pamphlets that were published during this time included those of Ida Bell Wells-Barnett, which were privately published in 1895 and 1900. One of her pamphlets, from 1895, titled “A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States, 1892-1893-1894” is considered essential in showing the ways in which lynchings were used to subjugate African Americans, decades after slavery. Like all media, the political pamphlet had a specific reach that changed as the technologies that produced it progressed. The Gordon Jobber might produce 400-600 impressions in a given run, and therefore the reach of the political pamphlet might be 2-3x more than a handpress could produce The political pamphlet was sometimes frustrating for the pamphleteers. Ida B. Wells (as we commonly know her), for example, struggled at the time with the lack of response. When political pamphlets were used in the service of national issues, but the audience remained the size, the pamphlets only gained reach when they resonated with the readers. Needless to say, white America was not interested in hearing about its own racism. This was effectively campaigning, an attempt to win over the minds of a certain population of people in a given area, namely the area that matched the reach of the political pamphlet.
One of the reasons why the Gordon Jobber’s impressions per day were only 2-3x times the number that could be produced by the handpress, and yet within another ten years, that number would more than quadruple, is because with the Gordon Jobber, a person was required to feed the paper into the press. After industrial mechanization, that changed. Brandtjen and Kluge began making automatic feeders for popular printing press models made by others, and in 1931, began releasing their own “automated printing presses.” Heavily used by the American military in WWII, the Kluge was also used for making political pamphlets. While it did not have “jobber” in the title like the Gordon Jobber did, the Kluge was still considered a jobber, because a “jobber” is simply the type of press that small or off-sized runs were used for. Of the pamphlets that came out during the reign of the Kluge, which lasted for individual hobbyists (and political pamphleteers and many private printers) until the photocopier in the late 1960’s. One of the most notable pamphlets that came out during that period actually came directly from the White House. Lyndon B. Johnson published the speeches that occurred during the civil rights conference titled “To Fulfill These Rights.” Based on the proceedings at the conference, a document finally emerged calling for federal protections and better quality education and housing for African Americans.
The Kluge could produce four thousand impressions per hour, which was substantially more than the Gordon Jobber could. This lengthened the reach of the political pamphlet produced on the Kluge. As a result, the uses of the political pamphlet changed. Where the Gordon Jobber enabled the political pamphlet to organized like-minded citizens in the same local community, for local, regional, or national causes, the Kluge enabled the political pamphlet to reach regional audiences. This lowered the social motivation of finding new people to connect with, but it raised the political motivation of organizing and inciting action from a distance. The localness of the reach affects the sociality of the political pamphlet’s use – the farther the pamphlet can go, either because of a larger number of pamphlets or a better distribution method, the less pure the social motivation is, and the stronger the strategic intent is.
During the transformation from the platen press to the automated platen press, the postal system also underwent significant changes in the United States. In 1918, the U.S. postal service adopted airmail, allowing faster delivery. By 1950, mail was so frequent that they had to introduce the “once a day” policy that is still in place today, and in 1963, the zip code came into being. All three of these things affected the length and nature political pamphlet’s reach significantly. Obviously airmail allowed for national audiences, but the limitations of the platen press still existed: a political pamphleteer could only make so many pamphlets, and one can only mail as many copies as there are. But by 1950, jobbers were automated, and the speed at which anything was published had increased dramatically, such that the very expectation of turnaround was higher. The zip code, of course, introduced a new kind of region, it created distinct neighborhoods, often based on class. The politicization of the neighborhood lent itself to new kinds of political pamphlets, and new kinds of organizing. By the early 1970s, when photocopying became a cheap process consumers could access, the zine had become a popular form of hobbyist publishing. The punk zine, which included various forms of political resistance, were largely produced on the photocopier throughout the seventies, and often focused on neighborhood issues.