Pete's Printing Press by Kate Gannett Wells
"What do you want for Christmas?" asked Mrs. Downs, in a kindly manner.
"I don't know, mother," replied Pete slowly. "Last year it was a
paint-box, bicycle, foils, and you said I could use Dick's foils—and
that you couldn't afford bicycles after the new carpet, so it got down
to a paint-box and that wasn't much of a Christmas."
"That's the comfort in regularly having Christmases; in time you get
what you want," answered his mother.
"That isn't always so. I think it depends on what a fellow wants; and
I've made a strike this year. I'm not going to say thank you for what I
don't want; only I don't exactly know what I do want. It must be
either—either—a—bicycle—or a printing press—or Indian clubs; and if
it is a bicycle, it must be the real kind—wooden ones are not allowed
in processions; and if it is clubs, I shall knock my head off; so it
better be a printing press. It doesn't make any difference to you this
year, does it, as we have not got to buy a new carpet? I have decided;
it shall be a printing press, and I shall get orders enough to pay for
"Not quite so fast, I don't know about the orders, and I do know
printing presses cost, and that Indian clubs are cheap."
"Oh! you can't put me off till another Christmas; it is like Alice in
Wonderland having jam to-morrow. And when to-morrow comes, it isn't
to-morrow. I am going to have it, and you can all club together and buy
it instead of giving me separately, sleeve buttons and scarf pins and
cologne and paper and pocket scissors. A fellow wants real things that
he can do something with. Printing press, now, you remember." And off
rushed Pete as Dick gave a low war-whoop, the signal for an incursion of
boys into the shed.
This shed was filled with relics of former joys, with the débris of
unsuccessful inventions, with tool-boxes whose tools were missing, with
oil cans without oil, with boards full of nails, with the wheels of
broken carts, and with strings, ropes and clothes lines of various
lengths; yet to a new-comer it was always an El Dorado of enjoyment.
Into this now sprang, tumbled, the cronies, Dick, Jack, Phil and Shel,
which latter name was a contraction for General Sheridan.
"I say," exclaimed Phil, "I am getting tired of your shed; haven't had
an idea in it for months—same old contrivances—get up something new."
"You just wait," said Pete, the proprietor.
"O come along, boys, if it is 'wait,' don't let us wait here," said
Shel, and off they started on a raid for fun. Pete returned from the
excursion to dream all night of what might and of what might not be. His
wishes became so thoroughly mixed that he fancied he had told his mother
he wanted nothing, not even Christmas itself; but the horror of such a
mistake effectually roused him.
The next morning there was no indication of forthcoming glories, except
that they had less than usual for breakfast; a kind of atonement to
which Mrs. Downs sometimes treated her family. Pete sighed. The
greetings for a merry Christmas were of doubtful value to him. He was of
a foreboding nature and experience had taught him to be prepared for
disappointment in the matter of presents. He went to church and noticed
carefully the style of type in the hymn books; he came home and took
down all his books from their shelves for the same purpose of
investigation. Even dinner itself failed to bring forgetfulness; for he
thought, if he could print bills-of-fare for such lengthy repasts he
might make money; though he felt he could never spell the queer French
names of dishes. At last the meal was ended, and the big parlor doors
were thrown open, displaying horizontal rows of evergreen, with various
knick-knacks fastened to these mysterious lines, which on inspection
proved to be the bars of an old-fashioned clotheshorse. It made one
think of sums in addition put down in agreeable shapes; one green line
of gifts and then another and another, which suddenly changed into a sum
in long division. Brown-looking packages lay about the feet of the
clotheshorse, and on them Pete fastened his eyes, for printing presses
His name was called several times and he received the very things he did
not want; sleeve buttons, scarfpins, cologne, and paper. He says, "thank
you," each time more faintly, whilst his mother's eyes twinkle. At last
Santa Claus tried to lift a big bundle; he puffed and panted and called
Pete to help him. Pete comes slowly forward, bends down to help, felt
something cold and hard beneath the wrapper, fumbled over it, clasped it
round, excitedly tried to lift it, whispered awestruck, "It is, it is
a self-inker;" bends further down, lifted it up awkwardly, and dropped
it on his little slippered foot, with a big bang and a painful, "oh!"
The scene was too funny for sympathy and the general laugh increased the
ache in the right-hand corner of the big toe on the left foot. Pete
limped out of the room and was soon forgotten in the universal
excitement; but when all were busy with their ice cream, he crept back
to his beloved bundle, unwrapped it, and lying flat down on his stomach
hugged himself to it, and gazed at it again. It was growing late. He
knew that as soon as the guests were gone he must do his share in
putting things to rights, restoring furniture to its place, and worse
than all, in smoothing out the wrapping paper and tying it up in little
bundles, and in unravelling all the knotted strings; for his mother was
accustomed to take off the edge of too great Christmas enjoyment, by
enforcement of this economical rule. That night he dreamed of Franklin,
of editors, of type setting, and of sensible mothers, who knew what
The next morning he woke with a sense of much to do, and soon began his
future career by sorting the type. This was a long job, for he had
several kinds; capitals and small letters, heavy face and light face
type, besides commas, hyphens and periods, and somehow everything was
mixed up. Now and then he stopped to admire his new gift and his own
energy, or to call some one to help him.
At last his task was done. Pete was a methodical boy and always finished
one job before he began another. "Now," said he, "what shall I do first?
set the type or ink the tablet? I'll ink the tablet and then print my
name, it is so short."
He began the inking process just as Dick announced himself by his
war-whoop, and called out,
"At it, are you! Got any orders! Shel has a big job—whole lots of
placards from his father, flaming ones to print, takes all kinds of
type; makes money on it; so busy he can't speak to a fellow, so I came
along here, for I'm one of the kind don't believe in orders for boys.
Learn by looking on, is my way—have all of the fun and—none of the ink
guess I'll say, seeing how your hands are. That isn't the way—your
mother will have something to say to that."
"You keep still and let me alone," answered Pete. "I'll come out all
right. I am going to set the type for Pete Downs, Centreville, Illinois,
U. S.," and he carefully began to insert the letters on the left hand of
the chase. He placed the chase in the body of the press, put some paper
on the pressure and began to work the handle up and down till the type
was well inked; he next marked out the size of his card on the pressure,
inserted his gauge pins, placed his card upon them, took hold of the
handle and pushed it up and down, thus bringing the card on the pressure
against the inked type; he pushed with all his might and lifted up his
work with a conqueror's air. Dick, who had been maliciously watching,
burst into peals of laughter. The name read thus:
Petedown, ne . S
"You've forgotten the quads," said Dick, "and you haven't enough ink.
You must put on spectacles to read it."
"That's nothing" replied Pete, growing red as he began to separate the
words and rub more ink on the tablet. Again he pressed down the handle,
lifted it up and gazed again. This time the name ran:
(ce rville, Ill )
The rest was so smutchy that not a letter was legible.
"Better go into partnership," said Dick; "you are not smart enough for
an apprentice, but on account of your capital you might be worth
something as a partner."
Pete cleaned the tablet with half the turpentine and benzine in the
bottle and began afresh. This time came out in watery lines:
"Why, what's the matter now?"
"Forgotten enough leads and a capital," replied Dick. "What is the use
in trying alone; go in with some boy who knows, and you'll get on."
"Perhaps. But I'll clear up first."
His mother had provided him with overalls for just such occasions; but
Pete was confident that printing was neater work than carpentering and
had avoided thinking of them. The ink was so imbedded in one corner of
the tablet and so scanty in another, that he tried to even the amount,
and then wash off the whole. Soon his finger-tips were coal black and
sticky; to remove this difficulty, he put finger by finger into the
turpentine, rendering that muddy and spreading five distinct streaks on
the back of his right hand. Then he poured benzine into the left hand
to rub on the back of the right hand. This operation sent ink and
benzine up his coat-sleeve, and all ten fingers became so useless that
in order to use them more freely he rubbed off their contents on
his—jacket. Seeing what he had done, his increasing fears brought
tears; to check which, he stuck his fingers into his eyes; which
hurting, sent more tears mingling with ink down his cheeks, just at the
moment that his mother appeared and that Dick's instinct led him to
disappear out of the window or door, he never knew which.
"My son, for shame!" said she; "how could you forget the overalls?"
"Oh! I don't know—wish I hadn't. I am going to take a partner and then
it won't happen again."
He cried, and was so funny-looking that there was nothing for his mother
to do but to laugh and advise speedy partnership.
"What boy would you have," asked he. "Dick has been here tormenting me,
I don't want him. I might try Shel; it need not be for life, you know.
He had a press last year and has got used to it."
"Very well," answered his mother. "I expected as much. Change your suit,
go ask him, and tell him I approve because his mother makes him wear
Pete had not anticipated such a speedy ending of his troubles, and
hastened away to do his mother's bidding. But whilst dressing, he
reflected that Shel knew too much and would snub him, and that Clarence
was the kind of boy who could get jobs easily. So he went to Clarence's
and proposed partnership.
"What terms?" demanded Clarence in a business-like manner, hands in his
pockets. "I'm pretty particular about the contract. Are you a
greenhorn? That's got to be taken into account."
"Well, yes, suppose I am now; but I need not be long if you keep your
bargain, besides my press is new and that counts for me."
"Well, yes, it does. Self-inker? lots of type?"
"Well, not so very much; self-inker though. Or come, you just go in and
try it for a month and we'll make terms afterwards."
"Pretty dangerous plan; but I'll try it, seeing it is a new press. I'll
come to your house right after dinner; and we have dinner right after
breakfast, so the kitchen work can be all done up. One gets hungry
between dinner and supper; and it's always a cold supper, so it needn't
be any work."
"Agreed," said Pete. "I know those tricks on meals, too."
The boys parted till half-past twelve, when Clarence appeared and set to
work in a vigorous manner to properly clean and ink the tablet. Pete,
with overalls on, watched every motion. His name was printed and came
out clear, beautiful:
Quads, leads, capitals, spelling all right. Pete felt as if he had done
"Now you try," said Clarence; and success again came in a dozen cards.
Then his name became an old story.
"I'll go and ask the cook," declared Pete, "if she don't want her name
printed," and off he ran.
"Certainly" was her obliging answer; she added slowly, "Only I haven't a
name good enough to print; you call me 'Hannah!' but if you put that on
a card it looks common; and if you say 'Ora,' no one will know it is me;
and if you only put my last name, they'll think the whole family has
called. You better take the nurse's name, 'Mehitable Jones,' you can't
get round that."
Hardly waiting till she had finished, Pete went to Mehitable, who kindly
consented to believe that she needed a dozen cards, and to write down
her name that it might be printed correctly. This looked like business.
The cards were quickly printed, and delivered, and the package was
marked on the wrapper "C. O. D."
"That is not my name," exclaimed Mehitable.
"Of course, that isn't your name," explained the boys; "cards are
inside. That means you must pay us right off, just what you please; we
didn't say anything about it first, because we trusted you—but we can't
afford to work for nothing."
"Well," said Mehitable, "here is five cents."
Pete's first money earned by honest hard labor; two and a half cents
apiece. "That's an unfortunate price for us," said Clarence, "though it
be convenient for the buyer. Let's keep all uneven sums as capital
towards other type, and all even sums we'll divide."
This was rather a shock at first to Pete; but with a partner who was
such a superior business man he would not dispute.
"The first great trouble," stated Clarence, "is to get orders; the
second, to execute them. You be the travelling agent and I'll be the
"Now," said Pete, "I won't. I want to print as well as you. I'll be
travelling agent in your family, and you in mine, and then we'll get
more out of each."
"That's an idea," replied Clarence; and the partnership, which to judge
by the angry looks of the past second seemed on the point of
dissolution, still remained unbroken.
That afternoon's success was marked, and afterwards when business called
Clarence away (for if the truth must be told), he was partner in two
other firms on strict terms of secrecy, Pete did not prosper. It was
always too much or too little ink; quads were not even and a sufficient
number of leads were seldom inserted. He often set the type the wrong
way so that it printed backwards, and worse than all he did not know how
to spell; and as he before had had occasion to accuse his mother of
moral reasons for her gifts, he now declared that she had only given him
the press, to teach him how to spell. One day she particularly
distressed both his memory and conscience by wishing him to print for
the nursery the motto, "Fidelity is a virtue;" and it came out,
"Fiddility is a virtu."
Notwithstanding this, the firm had made one dollar; and in the course of
the next two months Pete had acquired enough skill to feel himself an
A change had also come over Clarence; his spirit was too aspiring to be
bound by rules of constant neatness, and he grew jealous of Pete's
increasing ability. So he proposed a partnership on new terms; namely,
that the cash on hand should be devoted to the purchase of some new
fonts, and that afterwards the earnings should be divided; but that as
he would always ink the tablet, and as the workshop of the firm had been
transferred to his shed, he should have two thirds of the profits. Pete
objected, and insisted that until the business was on a better
foundation, all the profits should be turned in for the improvement of
their stock in trade.
"No," said Clarence, "I can't print all day and every day and not feel
any cents in my pocket. I want peanuts and candy and I want to give the
boys a treat, too, now and then. That's what I am going to print for,
after we have got these new fonts."
"Well, you can do as you please, I sha'n't try such things. I shall keep
my money for type and cards. We needn't quarrel yet till we have more
Clarence did not feel easy. Pete had shown more energy, patience and
neatness than he thought was right under the circumstances, though what
the circumstances were, he confessed to himself he did not know; and he
summed up the whole offence, when he was speaking of the affairs of the
concern to other boys, by saying, "O, Pete's getting too proud."
After the new type was bought, the following order was received for
twenty-five postal card notices:
Q. F. U.
will hold its tenth peripatetic occasion at 42 degrees 25 seconds North
Latitude 65 degrees 15 minutes 20 seconds West Longitude on the 10th
This was a very important order, requiring great care, received from an
older boy, a member of a secret society. Most obscure it seemed to the
firm. Clarence insisted on printing it in plain English and on setting
up in type: "A Walking match will take place, etc. etc." Pete thought
they had no right to argue about the matter, simply to do what was
"I should not mind it so much if they would not have such long words;
and we shall have to buy special marks for degrees, minutes, and
seconds—charge extra on that. But peripatetic—I didn't agree to print
such nonsense," said Clarence. "If we are going to do it I am going to
be quick about it and set it all up except the marks and see how it
He was in such a hurry that he set the type wrong three times. At last
"peripatetic" was right, but no space was left for the right number of
leads. Rejecting Pete's help, he lifted a row of type to make room, did
not hold it tight enough, the middle sank down, fell out and the line
went to pieces.
"I say now," he exclaimed, "I didn't do that—you did it—it did itself.
I never made 'a pie' in all my life, and see here, I won't have it said
that I made one now."
"I have made them lots of times," calmly said Pete.
"You! O yes! I dare say you have. But I never did, and that's why the
other boys want me in their business."
"What business? I would not get so excited just because of this pie."
"You would if your reputation depended on it."
"Why, I won't tell."
"But the other firms will have to know it; our honor is pledged to tell
whenever such a thing happens to any one of us."
"Are you in other business? Shel said you were, when he wanted us to
take him in, and I said you were not. That's the end of it. If you are
any one's else partner, you can't be mine, pie or no pie."
"Very well. Just as you please, you can take Shel. You always put on too
much ink and that wastes capital."
"Well, then, you put on too little ink, and blurred work don't bring
orders. I am done with you."
"And I with you."
"I shall bring up my cart to-morrow and take my things away."
"What are you going to do about those new fonts?"
"I would rather you would have them all than be partner with a boy who
invests in bogus firms."
"Bogus or not, I never mix accounts. You can have the first half and I
the second; only as 'x' and 'z' don't count I ought to have two more
letters in my half than you in yours."
"I should call that mixing halves, if you don't call it mixing
accounts," said Pete, who was so hurt by this unexpected closeness that
he instantly went off to get his cart. Meeting Shel on the way, he
retailed his wrongs and met with such hearty sympathy that he formed a
copartnership with him on the spot. Shel advised him to wait till
to-morrow before taking action and give Clarence time to think over the
matter and see if it would not be better for his pecuniary interests to
remain a silent partner.
"You know," urged he, "that he has got a good deal of type, and though
he works too quickly to admit him as active partner, he might do very
well as a retired one, and thus keep the peace. Then it is always a good
plan to have three partners; one of them, or all together—they somehow
act as judge. I must be off now." And the boys separated.
That afternoon it rained, and Pete had to stay at home. Early the next
day he drew his cart up the hill to Clarence's house with very forgiving
feelings, but found he had left word with the hired man that he had gone
off and wasn't going to have any more to do with him. Of course, honor
and justice then compelled him to take what belonged to him, especially
as the man told him that Clarence had expected him with his cart.
So Pete sadly entered the shed, looked at the forms, thought everything
was mixed up, and did what he always did when longing to speak right
out, but afraid to do so; he took hold of his lower lip with thumb and
forefinger and twirled it back and forth turning it over and under.
Clarence's little sister appeared whilst he was thus engaged, and seeing
the sadness of his eyes and the perplexity of his mouth and fingers, she
ventured to say, "It is too bad, and Clarence said it was, and that he
did not mean to upset the type, but that you got him so provoked he
could not help it, and that you could come and pick it out if you
choose, 'cause it was yours; but he—" and she stopped frightened.
"That's just what I shall do. You tell him it is a mighty mean trick;
that I have left him fifteen letters—you remember fifteen, not
thirteen," said Pete.
He had a hard time sorting the type; part of it was smashed, part of it
very dirty. His cart at last laden, he sorrowfully bore home his press
and its appendages, only to spend still more time in cleaning and
"getting it to rights." "I must finish that order," thought he, "for
orders are business; even if a firm is dissolved, the remaining partner
is bound to complete the work." So he manfully invested some capital in
the type for degrees, minutes and seconds, closed the contract and
received extra pay for his neatness and quickness.
But he grew tired and longed for companionship, so that when Shel
appeared, he found Pete quite dejected, willing to listen to terms of
partnership, but utterly unwilling to have anything more to do with
"Very well," said Shel, "I'll give him up if you'll give up some one
else, and then we'll start even."
"Why, I never thought of any one."
"Never mind," was the reply, "make believe you did; just like
politics—each of us gives up his best man and takes an unknown third
man. We must agree on one who has a self-inker larger than this and lots
of type. I want to extend the business."
"Why can't we begin at once as Jones, Downs & Co., and when we find the
right kind of boy let him be Co."
"Agreed, we'll get out hand-bills at once."
That evening the large trees on the road down to the village
post-office, the doors of the grocery, the dry goods, the apothecary and
provision stores—even the depot itself—bore large placards with the
JONES, DOWNS & CO.,
Orders promptly executed.
Many a tired man stopped his horse that night and through the next week
to read those staring notices. The schoolboys made fun of the new
concern, wondered how long it would last and tried to rouse distrust of
each other in the minds of the two partners, who saw that if they could
only obtain orders they could boast that they understood the tricks of
the trade and knew the use of advertisements; and so it proved.
For, the city music-teacher coming to the village was so amused by these
white patches on the trees that she sought their shop and gave them an
order to print her bill; and when the young townspeople received,
instead of a written bill, one printed in due form by those at whom they
had laughed, they became strangely silent. Soon came an order for some
tags for a large family with an endless amount of baggage, all to be
marked alike, as easier to read. An actual stranger sent an order for
work. The village calling increased so fast that it was difficult to
meet the demands for visiting cards. At last came an order from a church
fair for hand-bills, but of too large a size for their press. They had
often reflected upon the "Co." but had delayed action, which now became
imperative and necessitated partnership with the boy who would have the
biggest press, and this was Dick.
He was interviewed but proved refractory on a point of honor. "For,"
said he, "no one will know I am 'Co.' and if you are such a great firm,
I want the public honor of belonging to you."
What was to be done? the fair could not be delayed until matters were
settled; nor could the boys give up their job as being beyond their
"I'll tell you my terms," said Dick finally. "I'll put my press and all
its fixings into the concern if you'll let me have two thirds of the
profits on this job and on all the rest of the work you do this week. I
am 'hard up' and I know you have got orders ahead."
These were hard terms, but on the other hand, as Dick could command
custom, and was a good, clean printer, they acceded to his conditions
and printed the bills in startling type, using one or two kinds in the
same word, so as to make through the eye a vivid impression of the
meaning of the Fair.
From this time they had so much work to do in bill heads, tickets,
envelopes, etc., that they led a calm life of unbroken industry, laying
aside one quarter of their earnings each week as a fund for future stock
and dividing the other three quarters equally between them.