Civil War-style Printing at the Palace Press

The Palace Press this week welcomed a guest printer and a rare replica of an even-rarer Civil War-era press.

Bruce Cammack, associate librarian for rare books at Texas Tech’s Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library, brought a replica of an 1861 Adam’s Cottage Press to demonstrate what printing on the battlefront took.

Patented on March 19, 1861, the original cylinder press was manufactured and distributed by entrepreneur Joseph Watson and the Adams Press Company in New York. Advertisements for the press proclaimed that it could make Every Man His Own Printer!

“During the Civil War,” Cammack said, “they needed a way to print dispatches close to the front. These presses are heavy, but they’re mobile. They’d be in the back of a wagon, and you’d do orders and dispatches, incident reports, casualties, then move it. It was at the heart of the action.”

When the National Park Service discovered an original version of the press at Harpers Ferry, they hired Stephen Pratt of Pratt Wagon and Press Works in Cove Fort, Utah, to build five replicas. Today, two of them are at the Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, two are in private hands, and one belongs to Cammack, who acquired it through a grant by the CH Foundation in Lubbock to use for demonstration purposes.

How the original press ended up in Harpers Ferry is a story unto itself: It was used when General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at the Court House, when it printed the officers’ release papers.

“After the war, these presses were used extensively throughout the American West,” Cammack said. “Newspaper editors would go out into communities with them. They were a nice size for newspapers, sturdy, with only a few moving parts. They’d print sales circulars, wedding invitations, everything you’d need from a frontier printer.”

Cammack likes printing with his replica for a few reasons.

“You don’t have to be so careful because it’s not 150 years old,” he said. “And the quality of the printing is the same as it was 150 years ago, because the metal hasn’t fatigued.”

Bruce and James Bourland, who keeps the working-press side of the Palace Press’ exhibits going, along with Director Tom Leech, showed visitors how simple it was to ink the type, and roll it under a piece of paper. The result had those little letter-press indentations that speak of a hand-operated press – along with a surprising amount of print clarity when you consider the conditions the original ones had to operate in.

After working with the press for a few days on a planned booklet, Cammack, Palace Press Director Tom Leech, and assistant James Bourland decided to cut their losses and go with something far more simpler. And far more memorable: Territorial Gov. Lew Wallace’s quote about New Mexico’s uniqueness in the world.


“All calculations based on experience elsewhere, fail in New Mexico.”

Here’s how the typeblock of the quote looked before they loaded it onto the press. You can use it to practice your upside-down-and-backwards reading.

By this weekend, the Palace Press expects to be pumping out copies of the Wallace quote, and Cammack, Leech and Bourland will be there to answer your questions. Drop by to pick up your free copy.

While you’re there, you can visit with another relic of the 1800s: the buckskin-clad folks participating in the Santa Fe Mountain Man Trade Fair, who’ve set up shop in the Palace Courtyard. Admission is free through the Blue Gate on Lincoln Avenue.