Thursday, June 23, 2011

150 Years of the Government Printing Office

The Washington Post had an article last week about the Government Printing Office (GPO) opening a special exhibit-- including the first printed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation-- to mark GPO's 150th anniversary.   A great-uncle of mine worked at GPO for many years, but I did not realize that GPO goes back to the Civil War.

Congress created GPO in 1860 after determining that the printing of public documents was an inherently government function that could be done for less than the previous practice of contracting out the work to politically connected printers. (Sound familiar?) In a foreshadowing of 21rst Century debates over the role of government, the New York Daily Tribune questioned the wisdom of a government-run print shop, sarcastically observing: "If we are to have a National Printery, why not Paper-Mills also?  Why not Government Farms whereon to produce the food of our Army and Navy?  Of course, we must have national Powder Mills..."

Notwithstanding its detractors, GPO began operations on March 4, 1861-- the same day that the Lincoln Administration began-- with about 350 employee. From its inception, GPO has been located at the southwest corner of North Capitol and H Streets NW.  

 In March 1861, GPO occupied a four-story brick building that had been erected five years earlier for a private printing company.  The government purchased the building and all of its printing machinery from Cornelius Wendell for $135,000. Although the building has long since been replaced, GPO continues to occupy this same corner at North Capitol and H Streets NW. 

Map showing the location of the "Public Printing Office."  The area in which it was located was known as "Swampoodle," as the nearby Tiber Creek-- today buried under the streets of downtown-- had a nasty habit of overflowing.    A "notorious saloon," (is there any other kind?) was reportedly located across the street from GPO and sold whiskey to soldier, printer, and legislator alike for 8 cents a shot.  .  As can be discerned from the empty lots nearby, the area north of the US Capitol was not particularly developed yet.  The B&O Railroad Depot, just a few blocks south and west of today's Union Station, is also visible. (1857 Boschske Map, Library of Congress)

The new agency kept busy meeting wartime document needs.  John Defrees, the first GPO Superintendent and a Republican activist,  noted  that the war had  "greatly increased the quantity of blanks and blank books required, especially by the War, Navy, and Treasury Departments."   GPO employees pushed for better working conditions and may have been amongst the first federal workers to unionize. In December 1861, GPO employees vowed to only work an eight-hour day under an edict of their "Trade Union," but backed down when informed they would receive only 80 percent of their salary if they did not continue to work  ten hour days.  In addition to their printing duties,  GPO male employees were enrolled in the Interior Department Regiment, a government civilian reserve force that was called up when Confederates threatened the Capital in July 1864. 
Perhaps, the most important document, of the thousands printed by GPO during the war, was the Emancipation Proclamation.  On the eve of its formal issuing, Defrees wrote "Only a few events stand out prominently on the page of the history of each century.  The proposed proclamation of the President will be that one of this century." 

First GPO printing of the draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. (Library of Congress)
The GPO bindery in the 1860s.  The GPO employed a large number of women.

GPO's final Civil War contribution, albeit decades after the war ended, was the printing of the 128-volume Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, a comprehensive collection of Union and Confederate records that totaled more than 138,000 pages.  (Fortunately, today it is searchable in digital format online.)

VISITING THE GOVERNMENT PRINTING OFFICE:  The GPO's 150th anniversary exhibit is located at  732 North Capitol Street N.W., Washington, D.C. 20401. Exhibit hours are from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday.  As this is a government building, be sure to bring a government issued id with you.

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