On March 4, 1861, there were two inaugurations in Washington, DC. Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as the 16th President of the United States…and the U.S. Government Printing Office opened for business.
GPO set up shop in a printing plant originally built by Cornelius Wendell, a longtime contract printer for Congress. Congress purchased the building, at the corner of North Capitol and H Streets NW, for $135,000. It was the largest printing plant in Washington and one of the largest in the U.S.
The first head of GPO was John D. Defrees, an Illinois newspaper publisher, politician, and friend of President Lincoln.
As the Nation plunged into Civil War, GPO grew rapidly to keep pace with military and civilian printing needs alike.
In 1864, GPO employees participated more directly in the war when Company F of the Interior Department Regiment, comprised of GPO printers and pressmen, marched into Northwest Washington to help repel Confederate forces under General Jubal Early at the climax of his raid on the Capital.
After the war, GPO continued to expand along with the Nation. In 1866, GPO purchased a Bullock press, an example of the cutting edge printing technology of its day. Installation of the Bullock was GPO’s first step in a series of technological changes that vastly expanded the volume and quality of its printing work.
In 1876, the head of GPO became, by law, the “Public Printer.” The law also specified that the Public printer be “ …a practical printer, and versed in the art of bookbinding…”
Another major milestone in GPO history was the Printing Act of 1895, which made GPO responsible for the printing of all three branches of the federal Government, and for the dissemination of Government publications for sale and for deposit in congressionally designated libraries nationwide.
As the 20th Century dawned, GPO began to take on its present-day appearance with the construction of Building One, which opened for business in 1903.
In 1904, machine typesetting revolutionized Government printing with the arrival of Linotype and Monotype at GPO. These two amazing machines shifted the formula for typesetting from minutes-per-line to lines-per-minute. GPO typesetters became among the most skillful in the world.
A spelling revolution hit GPO in 1906, when President Theodore Roosevelt instructed Public Printer Charles Stillings to adopt simplified spelling for 300 common English words as recommended by a distinguished panel of language experts commissioned by Andrew Carnegie. The spelling of “T-H-R-U” for “through” and “FIXT” for “fixed” immediately drew the wrath and ridicule of citizens and newspapers across the country, and Congress terminated the experiment by the end of the year.
A more widely accepted change occurred in 1910 when horse drawn wagons were replaced by horseless carriages, for deliveries to Capitol Hill.
In 1917, America went to war again. With imported printing supplies falling victim to German U-boats and British blockades, GPO began making its own ink, marbled papers as well as greatly expanding its recycling of type metal.
The first years of the 20th century were all about expansion at GPO. As the Government’s demand for printing grew, so did production and the number of GPO’s employees. This large, dedicated workforce gained the ability to bargain with management as a result of the Kiess Act of 1924 – the beginning of a unique and ongoing partnership with GPO management. Under Public Printer George Carter, an increased focus on employees, and their need for additional space brought about a new employee-managed cafeteria…recreational activities, including a duckpin bowling alley, shuffleboard court, and a modern auditorium named for President Warren G. Harding, known as the “Printer President” because of his background in newspaper work.
An employee orchestra serenaded during lunch hours with the popular hits of the day and many sports teams and clubs flourished, providing a break from the often arduous schedule of “The Big Shop.”
The Great Depression hit America and GPO hard, but an enormous volume of printing for FDR’s New Deal soon had the presses humming and GPO's Apprentice Training Program really came into its own, providing employment for printing apprentices, men and women alike.
In 1935, Congress authorized two new buildings: Building 3, replacing the original GPO building at North Capitol and H Streets NW and Building 4, a paper warehouse adjacent to Union Station so as to accept deliveries of paper and other supplies by rail.
When Building 3 opened in 1940, GPO assumed the physical appearance it retains today.
From 1941 to 1945, GPO joined the worldwide crusade against the Axis driving its production of printing to new heights and keeping employee morale high with Saturday dances in Harding Hall and recreational activities.
In post-war America, GPO accelerated its use of commercial contracting, as no one plant, not even one as huge as GPO’s, could keep pace with the tremendous growth of Government programs and the onset of the Cold War.
As the machine typesetting replaced handset type, so, beginning in 1967, it in turn was replaced by the Linotron, GPO’ first venture into computer typesetting.
Although the change to photocompositions caused labor strife in other printing enterprises, GPO management and employees work together to ensure a smooth transition with no occupational dislocation.
By 1983, the era of machine typesetting at GPO was at an end, and the stage was set for a new era, resulting in tremendous savings to GPO customers, cutting the cost of congressional printing alone by more than 2/3 in real economic terms.
Since the early 1990s GPO’s award-winning Web site, one of the few Government sites authorized by law, has been one of the Government’s largest and most heavily-used, serving all three branches of Government and the public. It also has expanded free public access though GPO’s Federal Depository Library Program.
GPO’s printing procurement program continues to be one of the Government’s longest running partnerships with the private sector, saving millions of taxpayer dollars per year and creating jobs and tax revenues in states and localities nationwide.
Today, the presses continue to run, even as GPO continues to transform itself in tandem with the latest developments in information technology as we move…beyond ink and paper.