For the purpose of the database, and by long tradition, the term hand press is reserved for flat bed printing presses with a horizontal platen operated by manually pulling or pushing a lever to press the platen against the paper which is in contact with the inked image resting on the bed of the press. Such presses were used since before the time of Gutenberg until until the early twentieth Century. Other names are often used to designate particular types of hand press—the wooden ‘common press’ for example, and the ‘iron hand press’ such as the familiar Washington, Columbian, Albion, Stanhope and others—but ‘hand press’ is the most general term as so will be used here for the printing machines included in the database.

From a technical and operational point of view, hand presses are upright frames holding a horizontal ‘platen’ operated by a long ‘bar’, and a ‘bed’ which carries the printing ‘forme’ (the text and/or images to be printed). To make an impression the forme is been inked, a sheet of paper is placed on it and the bed is slid in under the platen. Once the impression has been made the bed is slid back out from under the platen, the printed sheet is removed, and the forme is re-inked by hand, ready to receive a fresh sheet to be printed.

As of December 2023 the Worldwide hand press database records more than 2230 hand presses as defined above, and located in the Americas, Europe and other regions of the world.

It is important to note that the term ‘hand press’ used here does not cover all types of manually operated printing presses. Many other kinds of manually-operated presses—more sophisticated than the simple hand press—have existed since the 19th century: platen job presses powered by the pressman’s feet or by some mechanical drive system, tabletop platen job presses operated by hand, and cylinder presses which are most commonly powered by an internal drive system but may also be operated as manually powered proofing presses. Such presses merit an inventory of surviving examples in their own right and so have not been included in the Worldwide hand press database.

It is also worth noting that another historian of printing technology is currently compiling a database of all the existing wooden hand presses in the world which includes both originals and modern reproductions. The Worldwide hand press database contains only a few wooden presses, almost all the presses it records being made entirely or mostly of iron.

Robert Oldham
Printing Technology Historian
Turrialba, Costa Rica


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