The Columbian Press: the Apple Computer of its day?


I like the word adventure, especially in its older sense: that which “happens by chance, fortune, or luck”. Today we’d typically call this serendipity. Adventure’s meaning grew to include taking a risk, “a trial of one’s chances”. The word adventure implies much greater agency or intent than serendipity. Going toward risk makes things happen.

When I set out in the morning seeking America By Another Name, I never know what I’ll find. One trip to the New York Public Library supplied my first knowledge of a patented creation called the Columbian Press. Many months later, I had a mere five hours to explore the northeast corner of Columbia County, New York. To my immense delight, there I met a man who actually owns a Columbian Press.

The man is Don Carpentier, founder and owner of Eastfield, a school for historic preservation in Rensselaer County. Amidst the buildings on this beautiful museum-of-American-architecture compound, Don has a print shop featuring the Columbian Press. The building itself came from Columbia County, just a few miles to the south. You can just make out the letters “Columbia Co. Agency” below the eave facing the lane.

The Columbian Press provided excellent pressure to the paper with little exertion by the pressman. It seems only five were sold in its namesake country; with the East Coast market already supplied with presses and the frontier market demanding portability, the Columbian Press made its mark in Europe. As an early and great American technological export, it was produced in the markets that it supplied.

The Columbian Press I photographed was purchased by Mr. Carpentier in England, place of its manufacture. As a device for communication marked by ease of use and unforgettable aesthetics, I suggest, with some irony, that it was the Apple Computer of its day.

Here are photos of the press and of Eastfield from that rainy October day last week. My first time excursion into Rensselaer County also had personal significance: the Van Rensselaer family are among my early American ancestors. I am particularly proud of Maria Van Cortlandt Van Rensselaer, the patrooness at Rensselaerswyck. Of all the women in the Dutch Colony of New Netherlands, perhaps more is known of her than any other.

Days of September

As September 2011 closes, we are reminded that it was three years ago this month that the United States’ economy took a nose-dive from which we still seek to recover. The economic difficulties started that month deeply inform my will to create this project exploring life in America in her places called Columbia.

Columbia was America’s poetic name, and the name for a secular goddess symbol for the United States. Cartoonists depicted this figure in different ways to suggest the mood of the American people.

Grant & Columbia

The country’s mood was definitely battered by the events of the September one hundred-thirty-eight years ago that are now called the Panic of 1873. In fact, it was on 30 September 1873 that the stock market reopened after a ten-day closure. The economic downturn started that year was unmatched until the Great Depression of the 1930s. Some historians believe our current economic troubles more closely resemble those of 1873 than those of 1929.

This Harper’s Weekly cover from October 1873 shows President Grant assisting Miss Columbia out of the ruins of Wall Street. I first saw this image at our very excellent National Portrait Gallery; a history-savvy curator placed it next to their portrait of this president. Thomas Nast, he who gave us a fat, well-fed Santa, is the cartoonist.

To view the Library of Congress webpage on this image, click here.

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A personal note: Ulysses Simpson Grant and I are both descended from Matthew Grant. Matthew Grant was the second man to be clerk of the Town of Windsor in the Connecticut Colony. His diary is in the Connecticut State Library; a passage therein has Colonial America’s first reports execution for witchcraft.

The last Grant in my lineage was Aruma Grant; her grandson Halsey Fitch Northrup married Mary Adelia Lansing, who was descended from same Schuyler family as Grant’s first vice-president, Schuyler Colfax. Halsey and Mary are my great-great grandparents.

Martha, Columbia, America, Britannia

On Sunday a friend suggested we visit Tudor Place, a remarkable home and museum in Georgetown, District of Columbia. The day was stiflingly hot, and walking up the drive from the street one realizes that in 1805, wealth purchased access to the breeze. The home was designed by the architect of the United States Capitol. It has a storied history, and is handsomely interpreted with many objects from the nearby home of George and Martha Washington at Mount Vernon.

It was Martha Parke Custis, granddaughter to America’s primary first lady, who built Tudor Place with her husband Thomas Peter. An $8,000 inheritance from step-grandfather George Washington funded the husband’s land purchase. As a woman, Martha was not allowed to own land.

Martha and Thomas had eight children, including five girls. They christened their first child as Martha. Their second child was born in 1797 and they named her—do you wanna guess? That’s right—Columbia.

Next came two boys. The next child, a girl, was christened with another patriotic name—America. In 1808, eight years after the death of their first Martha, the couple named another daughter the same. They buried this child six months later, while three months pregnant with their next and final child. This little girl was baptized Britannia in February 1815.

You may remember from the New York Times blog entry referenced here, Columbia, as a personification of the United States of America, was in part modeled on Britannia, the secular goddess who personified Britain since Roman times.

So, Britannia? you may puzzle. Just five months before Mrs. Peter had stood at her bedroom window, watching the handiwork of British arsonists on the new nation’s Capitol. What’s up with this new name-giving?

Though she couldn’t vote, Martha Custis Peter considered herself, in the family tradition, a staunch Federalist. Federalists favored strong ties with their erstwhile mother country, admiring their political system, even if disliking monarchy. Britannia’s middle name—Wellington—may hold the key to the parent’s intent. Wellington, recently made Duke of, was pursuing the tyrannical Napoleon around Europe, and would defeat him at Waterloo months after this little girl’s birth.

Columbia’s middle name is both familial and patriotic—Washington. Sister America’s middle name was Pinckney, after Revolutionary War officer and friend to George Washington, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. He was the Federalist presidential nominee in 1804 and 1808.

In this period, the newly organized United Kingdom’s government was slowly becoming more representational. Considering their naming the youngest child Britannia Wellington, you see that Martha and Thomas Peter were naming all their daughters after lands that love liberty, and men who fight tyranny.

The British heritage of the United States shows conspicuously in this list of surnames culled from the 1990 census (and yes, you see names from the historically concurrent Spanish Colonial period of Latin America is catching up).

As for girls names in the 1990 census, America herein ranks at 1702 out of some 4000, and Columbia is not found. The name Britannia is likewise absent, but the prefix “Brit” shows up 13 times. So, even if Britannia may no longer rules the waves, she just might, on the sly, be ruling the names.

This cartoon shows Columbia, personification of the United States, teaching Napoleon and Britain (as John Bull) lessons about freedom of the seas and the exercise of power. I do not know if this illustration shows a point of view that is either Federalist or Democratic-Republican.

Columbia and the Powers Abroad

Columbia in Space

The Space Shuttle Columbia embarking on her first voyage.

With the Space Shuttle Atlantis landing today at Edwards Air Force Base, America’s space shuttle program is officially finished.  The Columbia was the first space shuttle to orbit the Earth and then return for re-use. This pioneering orbiter was named after the first American ship to circumnavigate the globe, the Columbia Rediviva. The NASA mission patch for their vessel’s maiden voyage nicely highlights this parallel (image below).

All the five space shuttles were named for seafaring ships. Here is a video discussing the space shuttles and their namesakes. A sailing ship of old may have met its end foundering on a rocky coast. As you may remember, the modern day Columbia’s tragic destruction happened during her 28th mission.

She met her end not on coastal rocks but on the Earth’s outer coast of ever-thickening atmosphere; these air particles get compressed and so heated by the vessel’s supersonic speed—24 times the speed of sound. Just as water will find its way into a damaged ship’s hull, so hot gases infiltrated a small area of damaged heat tiles and into Columbia’s left wing. The damage spread and soon the vessel’s body disintegrated.

While most of us are not called to take the risks of being an astronaut, the majority of us are descended from ancestors who risked coming here to a new country. I hope, that as a person living in these times, I may keep their spirit of discovery and growth alive. Growth and discovery today needs must be very different than it was 200 years ago, but we still must find our way.

The Columbia Rediviva in a Squall.

NASA mission patch from Columbia's maiden voyage.