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Paper, Ink, and Pi: Printing the Signal of Liberty (Part III)

Wed, 01/02/2019 - 9:42am by morseh

Part III: “A Printer’s Supplies”

Like any other nineteenth-century newspaper, the Signal of Liberty relied on the receipt of printing supplies that were not always easy to come by in Western states and territories. Besides a press and typesetting equipment, printers needed several dozen cases of type and a regular supply of paper and ink. Local, as well as out-of-state, business connections with type foundries, paper mills, ink-makers, and bookstores were vital to the smooth operation of the Signal of Liberty. In some cases, these businesses’ support of the Signal also corresponded to the owner’s own antislavery convictions. Even when this was not the case, the Signal’s business networks paint a picture of industry and commerce in mid-nineteenth-century Ann Arbor, as well as the larger Great Lakes region.



One certainty of letterpress printing is that the lead-based cast metal type, which is particularly fragile and prone to dents, needs to be replaced after several years of use. The last stanza of a poem printed in the Signal of Liberty on June 23, 1845, “Lines to a Worn Out Fount of Type," features a newspaper printer’s emotional goodbye to his “inky friends”:

Stanza of "Lines to a Worn Out Fount of Type"

     I can’t pretend to mention half
     My inky friends have told,
     Since shining bright and beautiful
     They issued from the mould—
     How unto some, joy they have brought
     To others grief and tears;
     Yet faithfully a record kept
     Of fast receding years.


(The same poem was printed in the Ann Arbor Courier on May 21, 1880.) Although Signal of Liberty editors Theodore Foster and Guy Beckley began printing with fifty cases of second-hand type purchased from T. N. Caulkins in the spring of 1843, within three years their supply had dwindled to the point that they needed to order new cases. As repeated use led to loss, breakage, dents, scratches, and general wear, articles printed on broken type became increasingly common. For example, these January 1, 1845 and January 12, 1846 advertisements for wool in the Signal of Liberty show a broken capital “C” that was used for two years before the purchase of new type.

Wool Ad, broken type

Wool ad, broken type







On April 20, 1846, Foster announced that the Signal would be ordering a new supply of type. Their order would have included several different typefaces, which at this time were named according to size. The Signal used Long Primer (equivalent to 10 point font) for most of its articles, and Brevier (equivalent to 8 point font) for its advertisements. Local business owners paid 3 cents per line for a single advertisement, or a discounted rate for long-term advertising.

Signal article indicating purchase of new type

Signal advertising prices


But who supplied the Signal with new type, and how much did it cost? Specialized type foundries sold at rates of 30 cents to over a dollar per pound of type, depending on the size and intricacy of the font. A case of Long Primer, for example, would have cost about $17 at a rate of 34 cents per pound.

Detroit Free Press ad for Buffalo Type Foundry

Buffalo Type Foundry prices




Beginning in the 1830s, many upstate New York and Michigan newspapers ordered type from the Buffalo Type Foundry, established in 1835 by Nathan Lyman, a former New York City businessman. On August 24, 1836, the St. Joseph County paper the Constantine Republican praised the new typography of an upstate New York paper, and stated that they had purchased from the same company: “The Albany Argus, published daily, semiweekly, and weekly, one of the large news sheets of the age, is dressed out complete, within the present month, with new and elegant type, from the foundry of N. Lyman, & Co., Buffalo, where we got ours.” The Detroit Free Press advertised regularly for the Buffalo Type Foundry in 1847 and 1848 in exchange for a liberal discount on their next order. Based on these Michigan connections, it is very likely that Theodore Foster, too, ordered from the Buffalo firm when the Signal of Liberty replaced its worn-out type in the spring of 1846.

While little information is available about the political convictions of Nathan Lyman, he sold to printers across the political spectrum, including the formerly enslaved abolitionist editor Frederick Douglass, whose Albany-based newspaper purchased a new set of type from the Buffalo Type Foundry in May 1855. The next month, Frederick Douglass’ Paper printed an array of notices congratulating the paper on its upgrade. The Rochester American, for example, wrote that “Frederick Douglass' Paper appears this week in a new dress, from the foundry of N. Lyman of Buffalo. We congratulate Mr. D. upon this evidence of success, and of the appreciation of his efforts to elevate the colored race, and to do good for humanity at large.” Like Frederick Douglass’ Paper, the Signal of Liberty took pride in its typographical upgrades as evidence of the success of its antislavery mission, and promised to deliver “a paper that shall not only be worth the subscription price, but will advocate, in all respects, the highest and best interests of the whole community.”



While type remained an out-of-state purchase for several decades, Michigan-made paper began replacing imports in the late 1830s. Before that time, Michigan printers had relied on shipments from paper mills in Niagara Falls and elsewhere. Long-distance transportation of paper was inconvenient and could cause considerable delay in production. As newspapers and printing establishments began cropping up in higher numbers throughout the Michigan territory, demand for paper grew. An article published by the Ypsilanti Historical Society states that the first paper mill in Michigan was Christopher McDowell’s River Raisin Paper Company, established in 1834, just a few miles west of Monroe. This mill began by producing butchers’ wrapping paper made from straw, which was not of suitable quality for printing. The second known paper mill in Michigan was the Ann Arbor Paper Mill, established in 1839, which was located in lower town near Canal Street. This was the mill that supplied the Signal of Liberty, probably as early as its first issue. The Detroit Free Press also used Ann Arbor paper, publishing a notice on March 21, 1840 saying “We congratulate our friends of the press in this state, that they can now get their supplies of paper of good quality and of all sizes at home.”

The Ann Arbor Paper Mill was established by James Jones and John Foley, but by March 1842 Ann Arbor businessman and landowner Caleb Norman Ormsby had joined with Jones in the running of the mill. They ran a “Copartnership” notice in the Signal of Liberty that advertised “the manufacture and sale of PAPER, of various descriptions and quality” as well as their goal of “increasing their machinery” in the near future. The quality of the paper used by the Signal starting improving in January 1843. The mill’s new machinery may have included a tandem dryer, a device invented in the late 1830s that combined the drying and pressing of rag pulp to make a finer, smoother paper. They also improved the base materials used to make paper. In the early years of the Ann Arbor Paper Mill’s operations, much of the paper was made from swingle tow, which was refuse flax or hemp. Swingle tow produced much lower quality paper than paper made from linen or cotton rags, and it may have been the source of the thick, heavy paper that the Signal of Liberty was printed on during its first two years. By January 1843, however, the Signal of Liberty was using fine rag paper from Ormsby’s Paper Mill, which the editors called “a superior article.”

Jones and Ormsby "Copartnership" notice

Signal using paper from Ormsby's Mill








Besides hired labor, paper was the Signal of Liberty’s biggest expense. By the time the Signal had graduated from its original five columns to the seven-column spread that marked its continuing success during the years of 1843 to 1848, the editors were ordering “double demy” size newsprint paper, which was approximately 35 x 22 ½ inches. Printed on both sides and then folded in half, one sheet produced a sizeable four-page newspaper. During the 1840s, a ream of newsprint paper cost anywhere from $3 to $4 dollars. Theodore Foster’s Day Book, an account book available to researchers at the Bentley Historical Library, offers a partial record of the Signal’s expenditures during the years 1847 to 1848. Entries in the Day Book reveal that a typical issue used 88 quires of paper, which corresponds to nearly four and a half reams, or 2,112 sheets (there were 20 “quires” in a 480-sheet ream). Though the Day Book does not specify how much Foster paid for each ream of paper, the yearly expenditures that he lists in an 1846 article discussed in Part I suggest that paper cost the Signal of Liberty approximately $850 each year, or $3.72 per ream, which seems a reasonable estimate for what the Ann Arbor Paper Mill charged local patrons.

The Signal of Liberty’s printed notices and advertisements for the Ann Arbor Paper Mill demonstrate a strong working relationship between the editors of the antislavery newspaper and the mill’s owner, Caleb Ormsby. Advertisements for the mill ran in subsequent issues for nearly a year after the announcement of Ormsby’s sole ownership in January 1843. Advertisements for Ormsby’s mill also appeared in other regional newspapers including Nicholas Sullivan’s Livingston Courier, demonstrating the breadth of 1840s Michigan abolitionist networks. Sullivan, a former printer for the Jackson-based Michigan Freeman as well as the Signal of Liberty, probably started ordering paper from the Ann Arbor Paper Mill as soon as it opened in 1839. The Library of Michigan was generous enough to share an image of Ormsby’s advertisement in the September 27, 1843 issue of the Livingston Courier. (Click here to see the Library of Michigan’s extensive microfilm newspaper collection.)

Signal of Liberty ​​​​Ad for the Ann Arbor Paper Mill
Signal of Liberty​, Jan. 16, 1843
Livingston Courier Ad for the Ann Arbor Paper Mill
Livingston Courier, Sept. 27, 1843
















The terms of Ormsby’s advertisement—which was reprinted almost verbatim in both the Signal of Liberty and the Livingston Courier—suggest that he was a savvy businessman who was open to partnerships with printers of all political orientations, except for those who would not pay their debts. He described his mill’s paper as “of a kind that will work easy upon types, set to almost any creed or principle,” and enlisted the patronage of printers invested in “equal rights and reciprocal advantage.” Politically, Ormsby was affiliated with the Whig Party in the early 1840s, but by 1848 he ran for Congress as a Free Soil candidate. These affiliations, particularly his turn to the Free Soil Party, suggest that he was in agreement with antislavery principles. (Read more about Ormsby, including his departure from Michigan to join the ‘forty-niners’ in the gold rush, in Lela Duff’s Ann Arbor Yesterdays, published by the Friends of the Ann Arbor Public Library in 1962.)



Unlike paper, printing ink made up only a small portion of the Signal of Liberty’s regular expenditures—approximately $40 per year—but the supply chain features an array of local Michigan bookstores whose owners were active in antislavery circles. Advertisements in the Signal reveal business relationships with at least three different bookstores: Chauncey Morse’s Michigan Bookstore and Alexander McFarren’s book and stationary shop, both on Jefferson Street in Detroit, and William R. Perry’s bookstore in Ann Arbor’s Lower Town. On March 4, 1844, the Signal printed advertisements for all three, which shows how eager the editors were to promote (and receive advertising revenue) from local businesses, even those who might be in competition with one another. The Signal purchased ink from both Detroit bookstores on different occasions, but by the end of the 1840s they had the most regular arrangement with Alexander McFarren.

The first hint of where the Signal purchased its ink appears in a March 6, 1843 advertisement for “Boston Printing Ink,” which was likely reprinted in many Michigan newspapers. Supplied by Chauncey Morse’s Michigan Bookstore, the advertisement offers a $1 discount on ink for newspaper printers who include the ad in two or three subsequent issues. The issues in which the “Boston Printing Ink” advertisements appear were the first issues of the Signal produced by Theodore Foster and Guy Beckley after they purchased a printing press, type, and other equipment from their former printer, T. N. Caulkins. Searching for the supplies they needed, the editors turned to Morse’s recently-established Detroit bookstore for discounted ink. The Michigan Bookstore continued to sell Boston Printing Ink for at least two or three years, and it supplied other local newspapers including the Whig-affiliated Oakland Gazette.

Ad for the Michigan Bookstore

Ad for Boston Printing Ink









The Signal of Liberty also had regular business relations with another recently opened bookstore, this one closer to home. Beginning in January 1844, William R. Perry was advertising a “New Book Store” in Ann Arbor’s Lower Town, near the Flouring Mill. Perry was a regular subscriber and advertiser in the Signal, which indicates his affiliation with the Liberty party and antislavery principles. Theodore Foster’s Day Book reveals significant evidence of purchasing and trade between the Signal and Perry’s Ann Arbor Bookstore, but the goods purchased were usually small in number at a fairly high frequency, suggesting that the editors turned to Perry’s store more out of convenience than for bulk supplies. Although Perry did sell ink, most recorded transactions indicate the purchase of paper, usually fine quality letter paper, which he sold at rates of $3 to $4 per ream. Perry’s advertisement boasts “Detroit prices” for customers paying in cash, but the Signal found better prices for printing ink at Detroit bookstores that had the luxury of a direct supply from East Coast cities like Boston and New York via the Erie Canal.

Ad for Perry's Bookstore

Ad for McFarren's Bookshop








The Detroit bookstore that emerged as the Signal of Liberty’s primary ink supplier was Alexander McFarren’s book and stationary shop on Jefferson Street, established in 1837 or 1838. Foster’s Day Book records two 1847 ink purchases that document regular transactions between the Signal and the Detroit shop. Foster usually sent his reliable compositor and pressman, S.B. McCracken, to purchase the ink directly from McFarren’s shop. A September 22, 1847 order shows that McCracken bought a small $5 “keg of ink,” while a December 9, 1847 order shows that McCracken bought a 43 lb. keg for $12.90, a price of 30 cents per pound. A Detroit Free Press ad from December 28, 1849 reveals the source of McFarren’s news ink: John D. McCreary’s ink manufactory in New York City, which supplied dozens of newspapers across the continent, from New Orleans to Montreal.

Ink purchase, Foster's Day Book

Detroit Free Press Ad for McCreary's Printing Ink










Like the Ann Arbor bookseller William R. Perry, Alexander McFarren was a regular subscriber and advertiser in the Signal of Liberty, but he was even more active in antislavery organizing. Beginning as early as January 1842, McFarren was an agent for the Signal, most likely using his bookshop as a base for soliciting subscriptions and selling the Signal to Detroit readers. He also sold locally printed abolitionist books including antislavery almanacs, and he was a member of the Michigan Anti-Slavery Society. The Signal’s close collaboration with business partners like McFarren shows the newspaper’s commitment to supporting local business owners who promoted the antislavery cause in their personal lives as well as in their commercial enterprises. The New York and Michigan-based foundries, mills, and bookshops that supplied type, paper, and ink to the Signal of Liberty all offered fair prices and high-quality products that helped advance the antislavery cause in Michigan.

For a closer look at how Signal of Liberty editors Theodore Foster and Guy Beckley decided what to print in their paper on any given week, check out the fourth installment of “Paper, Ink, and Pi,” coming soon!

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