A Work of Fiction–Introducing Helen’s World


Step inside Manhattan 1885.

Helen Kerr’s world smells of paper and ink, warm metal and machine oil. Her world is fronted with gleaming glass with the name carefully applied:

William Kerr’s Fine Printery.

And Fine it was.

Behind the shopfront, is a counter made of special drawers…


Drawers full of samples. There were calling cards pinned artistically to faded blue velvet.


A variation on the sample calling cards.
By SU Professional & Technical Writing

There were invitations to garden parties and at homes and soirees, guild edged mourning cards, customised stationery, playbills, pamphlets and newsletters.

They printed flyers for shops and advertisements for hopeful entrepreneurs.

From the age of 7, Helen thought that being the owner of a print shop was a very fine thing. Like being a fairy godmother, you made dreams come true, at least the dreams of authors, brides and businessmen.

The hours were long but there was almost always time for coffee; except at Christmas when everyone doubled their orders but wanted to pay half the price.

The Foundation and Tone of Helen’s World were set by her father

William Kerr held that a good printery is one with heart.

There was comfort in going over the details of stationary requirements for mourning with Mr Kerr. He was always kind, having you step into the parlour where people wouldn’t comment if you gave way to tears.

And a good printery has a conscience.

He had in his younger days, at his own expense, published an abolitionist newspaper. He, himself stayed up all night typesetting reprints of Fredrick Douglas’s speeches for broader local distribution.

Of course, that was long before Helen was born but she felt her father’s legacy deeply.

His code of conduct was hers: Never published an item which offends your conscience, no matter how much money is offered or how influential the person placing the order.

What was the point of owning a press if you did not use it for the betterment of society?

As a result of these scruples, William Kerr’s Fine Printery was not always as prosperous as it might have been. There were times when bread and dripping were all that Helen had in her lunch pail. But while they might live off bread and dripping for a fortnight here or there, Helen’s school fees were always paid.

There were times when bread and dripping were all that Helen had in her lunch pail. But while they might live off bread and dripping for a fortnight here or there, Helen’s school fees were always paid.

A sacrifice she did not always appreciate.

Helen preferred to be in the press room all day laying the type in neat rows, fingering the brass letters on their wooden mounts, mixing ink or sketching embellishments for their artist to transform into custom scrolling and profusions of leaves found only at their fine printery.

Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Stamp Division http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2003654729/

A woman printing stamps 1880’s

On the matter of education, Mr Kerr was firm. No printer could hold his, or her, head up if their headlines were misspelt and no amount of decoration made up for incorrect punctuation. So, to school she went, every day until she turned 16. When she turned her full attention to learning the family business.

At 19 she thought she had her whole life mapped out, but that was before she went away for the summer. That was before she met Theodore Wrenwood.

To find out what happens that fateful summer when Helen leaves behind her ink-stained apron for garden gloves read Helen’s Summer, the first book in the Helen’s Seasons Series containing the adventures and misadventures of a working class Manhattan girl as she takes on the world with honesty and humor.


The No.1 “Gem”

No1 the Gem close-up

Okay, so this was my favourite press, unfortunately it is probably circa 1920 so way too late to be in Helen’s shop but I still love it.

No 1 Gem circ 1920

It is petite but by no means the smallest. There were a number of table top presses produced for home use which were fantastic, but this is a full sized floor model. There is so much to love about this press: the combination of  wood and black metal with red lettering,  the smoothness of the disc, the sound the rollers make as they spread the ink,  the clink as the beds meet.

It makes my heart go pitter patter.

The No.1 Gem could print up to an  8″x 5″ size paper. It was hand fed and foot powered.  It would be used to print business cards, calling cards, handbills and fliers.

Fliers were an especially popular form of advertising in the late 20th century  and made up a large portion of the business for a small print shop. Today this press is still used to print fliers, as well as wedding invitations small signs or amusing slogans.

I don’t know what it is about these presses that thrills me. If its the feel of the metal or the way it is so simple and yet so ingenious. I like things that show their workings. I love the way the the parts move in unison and the sound it makes in operation.

I really wish Helen could have this machine, she would call it Jemima; not original but appropriate. Yes, Helen names her presses or rather she named them as a little girl and it stuck. If ships and trains have names why not printing presses?

The Whiteman Park Print Shop

My journey through time to an earlier, grittier and dare I say more romantic age of print began here at the Whiteman Park Print Shop in Perth Western Australia.

WP Print Shop Sign

My guide was Phil. Phil is a reservoir of knowledge but more importantly he loves his presses as much as my character Helen loves hers. That love for the machine, the thrill of the possibilities is very important, it is very real and not a figment of my imagination.

To restore a rusty, cantankerous press to pristine, full working order is a true labor of love, patience and skill.

Phil and His Machine

Phil and his oldest press, an 1850’s platen press awaiting full restoration

Now I’m not saying everyone should have an obsessive preoccupation with antique printing presses but every writer, reader or beneficiary of the printed word should spare a few minutes to consider its humble beginnings.  I mean where would we be today if Gutenberg hadn’t invented the printing press? Would we have had the phenomenal scientific breakthroughs that lead us to the modern age? Would the industrial revolution have happened, let alone the technological revolution?

I don’t think it would.

My journey doesn’t go all they way back to Gutenberg, though I won’t rule that out for future exploration. For this research trip I focused on the 1860’s and later.  These machines at their birth  were not mere hunks of cast iron; they were well oiled works of art.

The most grandiose, splendid example are the old iron presses which began with The Colombian and the Albion. Unfortunately the Whiteman Park collection doesn’t include any of these but….

Check out these beauties from Howard Iron Works in Canada, go on have a look its worth it.

Oh and have a look at this fantastic one.

Doesn’t their elegance of design and elaborate embellishments make your heart skip a beat or two? Mine does.

The presses that really peak my interest are the platen presses, the kind you probably think of at the mention of antique presses, with the foot treadle and large wheel on the side, like the one above.

I will try not to fill every post for months on end with these marvelous machines but I will from time to time do a feature on one or other of the Whiteman Park Print Shop presses.

And if you happen to be in Perth and have a preoccupation with movable type and elegant machines rumor has it they will be starting workshops.  I love to see this art being carried on to my generation and beyond.

In this day of everything being cheap and instant I love the tactile solid nature of old fashioned print, the feel of the type in my hand, the impression it leaves on the page, the sound of the treadle bringing the wheel to life bringing together the meeting of the plates, leaving an indelible impression.

Next time…..

Meet the “Gem”, the press that stole my heart.