Arizona’s Letterpress Legacy

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Before the digital age there was print culture, with its tools, presses, types and inks, and its profound effect on society and knowledge, particularly in Arizona territories of the mid-19th century.

You can learn about old-school letterpress sensibilities at Tubac Presidio State Park, where the original Washington Hand Press, the first in the territory, is still in operation and where a master printer still works the hand press and produces a replica of The Weekly Arizonian.

James Pagels, volunteering at the Presidio since 2001, carefully demonstrates the material cultural objects of letterpress, running the proof press, inking the type plates on a block of marble, using his micrometer to work the paper, a 50-pound stock (which is close but not an exact match to original newprint used).

James Pagels demonstrates the Tubac Presidio Washington Hand Press
James Pagels demonstrates the Tubac Presidio Washington Hand Press

“There is an artistry to the craftsmanship,” says Pagels. A master printer with a printing industrial arts degree, Pagels practiced in Tucson printing plants and taught in Tucson schools before retiring and using his knowledge of occupational arts to answer questions about the objects and impact of the printing transformation in Arizona.

Early printing was a time-consuming and difficult process, and involved setting type, then assembling sections of “hot” type with spacers, lead rules and wood blocks. (Illustrations came to newspaper in 1890s; prior to that it was strictly columns of type.) Once pages were created, they then were inked to transfer the page to the paper.

A lingo also accompanies the occupational craft, with defined symbols for proofing and marking up galleys, adds Pagels.

The Washington Hand Press was manufactured in 1858 in a Cincinnati foundry. Archived advertising documentation notes an advantage of the press being “automated” (because of ball bearings in equipment which allowed the printer to roll the press bed.) The press cost $275 and arrived in the territory after six months of travel by river and oxcart.

The first edition of The Weekly Arizonian was printed March 3, 1859, promoting a Santa Rita mining venture. Approximately 500 copies were printed, mostly put on stagecoaches for distribution to potential settlers (as many territory residents in 1859 were illiterate).

The paper certainly changed community culture in terms of storytelling and social narrative. That first edition reported on horse thefts, stagecoach fees, land purchases, in addition to promoting the political dialog of the era. Edward Cross, a Union supporter, was the first editor. The publisher, Sylvester Mowry, was a Southern sympathizer, and the two held a duel with their Burnside rifles over their political disagreements. As reported in the paper, both survived the duel, and settled their differences over a 40-gallon keg of whiskey shared with the town.

There were 21 issues before the press and paper operation moved up to Tucson. The Washington Hand Press eventually moved to Tombstone, where it briefly printed that town’s newspaper. In the 1970s, the old press was found in a garage of the Tombstone Epitaph, sent to the Historical Society and eventually returned to Tubac Presidio (where visitor Carl Palmer saw the press and assisted in the restoration.)

For centuries, printing was the primary form of communication, evolving into an occupational art form. Print culture gave rise to new industries and arts, including typefaces, designs of the printed page, refinement in paper stock, plating techniques and inking.

Letterpress today, because of the tactile feel of its quality, deep impressions, has been revived as an artisan technique in small print shops.

“It’s living history,” Pagels says of the Tubac Presidio Washington Hand Press.

Presidio visitors have an opportunity to see Pagels demonstrate (often accompanied by his wife Elisabeth, a teacher and journalist) in Civil War-era garb, complete with aprons and sleeve protectors. The newspaper he prints is a replica of the original March 3, 1859 edition. Check the website for the May schedule of hand press demonstrations (


  • Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (Volumes 1 and 2) United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 1979
  • The Museum of Printing History in Texas presents the culture and the objects related to the history, science and art of printing.

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