Going back to the Victorian Era – R Smail & Sons, Printers & Stationers

In the Office, the shelves are packed with detailed records.

Robert Smail’s Printing Works is the oldest working commercial letterpress printers in the UK – a living museum of Victorian history.  When you walk through the doors marked Printers R Smail & Sons Stationers, you will be taken back to the late 1800’s where echoes of industrialization reverberated across the country.  Inside the two-story building facing High Street (A72) in Innerleithen, the sounds of a printing press at work reminded me of all the words and messages that came from this Victorian era business.

In the Office

Established in 1866, R Smail & Sons was a place to purchase stationery, order business cards and letterhead. A weekly newspaper was published on these premises between 1893 and 1916. If you wanted to travel by steamship to America, your ticket would likely have been printed by R Smail & Sons who had the authority to issue tickets for those steamships to America.

In the Caseroom

Fortunately, the Smail family did not see the need to keep up with twentieth-century advances in technology. Even so, the business flourished and continued to print stationery and newspapers until 1986, when the National Trust for Scotland purchased the printing works.

In the Machine Room

Today, Robert Smail’s Printing Works is a fully functional Victorian era letterpress printing works.  In a recent e-mail update from National Trust for Scotland, I read this announcement:

“We’re proud to announce that Robert Smail’s Printing Works, our traditional Borders-based printing press and the oldest working commercial letterpress printer in the UK, has been employed to create a brand new range of cards to mark the 40th birthday of specialist Scottish stationer, Paper Tiger.”

There is a warm welcome for visitors who come for an one-hour tour showing various stages of the printing process.  Becoming an apprentice compositor for even a few minutes, was an unforgettable experience. Learning to see letters backward is no easy task.   

Printing Continues at Robert Smail’s Printing Works

This is your invitation to join me on a tour of Robert Smail’s Printing works.

86 Thoughts

  1. One word. WOW.
    Truly wonderful to see. I was researching re letters and stationary at the start of the 1800s for my current WIP. And the case seemed to be that people hardly had any paper, so they would just write the reply to a letter on top of the one that had been written to them. They would do this at every angle, using every bit of space until you just couldn’t. I can see that this was a market niche that needed discovery!! And here it is.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for joining me in the printing room of R Smail & Sons. Your research process is extraordinary, Shey. We read books from the Victorian Era thinking that they had access to what we have come to see as ubiquitous products – paper, pencils, pens. I did not know that people would reply to a letter using the one that was sent to them. But do we have an endless supply of paper? My sister, Sarah, read that over the past year there has been a paper shortage, which suggests that digitalization will increase going forward. Sigh! I love the feel of paper when I write with a pen or when reading a book. Sending hugs!

      Liked by 3 people

      1. I didn’t know that either re letters but I also found out re paper, that newspapers were really expensive, so people shared them,. I think this last year there’s been a shortage of a lot of things. i eventually ordered up printer paper cos I couldn’t get it. But having said that , only food shops or shops that even had an aisle of food but sold other things were open here and obviously there was a run on these other things. I also noticed at every turn a shortage of delivery lorries. Very early here, there was no flour to be had. We found plenty in a wee indy shop down the road, so we got by, but I heard it was cos, 90 percent of flour made here goes to bakers. In addition to this, the companies that manufacture the bags for domestic flour were shut. I think they were told to reopen. The other day I saw tons of paper in one of the shops so I am hoping this has been cos a lot of manufacturing was shut down . Governments don’t think re the chain when it comes to production.

        Liked by 3 people

      2. Frances and I have had several discussions over the past year on shortages, given she remembers the Depression years when it was difficult to obtain products. Her parents were farmers but even then, food supplies were carefully monitored – nothing was wasted. I believe that we are learning to live more responsibly, to view our consumption habits and make choices in relation to the environment etc. The supply chain gets disrupted and does not promise an endless supply. I appreciate Resa’s ability to see what is possible using materials that I would throw away. Speaking about flour bags, Frances told me that companies that made flour bags in the 1930’s – 1940’s made them with pretty designs so that they could be used to make dresses and shirts. Thank you Shey – I love our conversations.

        Liked by 3 people

    2. I love them too. That is fascinating re the flour bags. And yes, while I am desperate to get back to normality, I’m not for a return to greedy consumerism. I’ve aye been a waste no want not person and waste and greed appalls me

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Talking flour bags, meant to add that eventually in response to the shortage here, Aldi’s were selling huge great sacks of flour. I thought we’d all need massive cupboards for those.

        Liked by 2 people

    3. HI Shey, I learned about the shortage of paper and also cardboard during the Victorian era while reading a book called the Bronte Cabinet. This book, which is a biography of the Bronte family told using select items from their lives, discussed the tiny books the children created. They were tiny because paper was scarce and they used to use recycled cardboard they ‘liberated’ from other household uses for the covers. So interesting.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Robbie – I just downloaded “The Bronte Cabinet” and am looking forward to reading the book. I believe that you may have been the one who recommended this book to me.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. You will love the tour, Margaret! We were given every detail of the printing process by knowledgeable and experienced printers. Just keeping these printing machines in working order is not an easy task. I am delighted that we have connected!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Indeed they were interesting times. As you said, we now have Indesign and PDF! More technology coming soon. The progress of transmitted messages has been extraordinary over the past decades. I remember the first time I saw a fax machine and thought it was magic.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Dearest Rebecca,
    the next time we are going up North to Scotland we’ll surely visit this printer. Great pictures and video we thoroughly enjoyed 🙂 🙂
    With lots of love and hugs
    The Fab Four of Cley
    🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I am delighted that you joined us at R Smail & Sons, Klausbernd. Somehow, I thought that you had visited this amazing printing shop. Thank you for kind comments. When I went back to these 2015 photos, I reflected on the dissemination of information throughout the world since the invention of Johannes Gutenberg. Printing has evolved over the centuries so much so that we have taken the idea of print media as a given, that print will be with us for all time. Now, with the shortage of paper and environmental concerns (I just bought paper made from sugar!!!) it seems that some form of digitalization will experience exponential growth in the coming decades. However – I read a very interesting article on the World Economic Forum, dated April 29, 2021 which suggested that people still prefer printed books, even in the digital age. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/04/printed-books-vs-e-books-which-is-the-most-popular/

      I keeping my books safe – I love to hear the sound of a page turning. Sending many hugs and lots of love to my dear friends, The Fab Four of Cley!!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree, Marina – this type of art must be kept alive. Thankfully, the Smail family were not early adopters of new technologies. There were others that supported R. Smail & Son Printers. I understand that the Community Council, led by Iain Henderson and Nettie Watson saw the need to preserve this treasure. Cowan Smail, a third generation owner, continued to run the business until he retired in 1986. The National Trust for Scotland’s acquisition safeguarded the legacy for all to enjoy. Sending hugs across the ocean.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. I am delighted that I now am following you on your new URL. I thought that you may be taking a break from blogging. So wonderful to be connected again. Thank you for stopping by and for joining me at R Smail & Sons Printers!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. So good to be connected again. I did take an extended break after my mum and dad passed away, but life goes on, as they say. So it’s onwards and upwards, one day at a time. Love and hugs always 💜

        Liked by 2 people

      2. One day at a time is the very best way to embrace the life that has been given. May your memories of your mum and dad sustain you as your move forward. My father has been gone 10 years and I still feel the warmth of our conversations. It is a reminder to me to create amazing memories for those who remain when we move on. My thoughts are with you, my dear friend. Sending many hugs!

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I am delighted to know that you experience smells when you see photos. I do too, especially with cookies, hot chocolate, and freshly made bread. Our subconscious minds are truly remarkable!!!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. What a tribute to the skill and patience of the people who created these printed materials! I’m so happy to know the company is still appreciated for their fine work…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m glad the Smail family was late adopters of new technologies. While other printing businesses moved over to newer and better machinery, the Smails preserved a traditional way, which continues even as printing is transitioning to digitalization of information. Thank you for joining me at Smail & Sons Printer. Isn’t it fun to travel back in time?

      Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree, Julie! I am very interested in going back in time to find the arts/crafts of previous generations. Great care is taken in the creation process. As you know, I have a fountain pen that I fill with different colours of ink, which has nuanced my thinking as I write. (I discovered that Virginia Woofe liked to write in purple ink.) Thank you for the link to Boma Art. I have been on the Bono Art website for the past hour looking at their exquisite products. Karoly and Eva are remarkable artists. Do you know whether I would be able to order from their website from Canada?

      Liked by 2 people

    1. I am so glad that you travelled back in time with us, Dave. When I was creating this post, I checked out the progress of and transition to digital media from print media. As we discussed before, social media has played a significant role in how we receive our daily mail and how advertisers use digitalization to spread their messages. The question still remains whether print will become extinct, especially considering the environmental issues of paper. I am keeping my book collection safe. I love the sound of a page turning, don’t you?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I also love the sound of a page turning, Rebecca! I hope some print will remain in the future, despite the important environmental drawbacks you mentioned. Heck, digital devices have their own ecological negatives — needing electricity to charge them, when they have to be disposed of, etc. While I’m often on my laptop and phone, I still read books in print format. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. The good news is Dave – that people prefer books over e-books, which does not come as a surprise. Second hand books are valuable. Have you been following the issues with NFTs – non fungible tokens? There are huge questions with regard to environment. I read that “As their mass appeal grows and trading momentum accelerates, it is feared NFTs’ environmental impact could be considerably damaging. Against the backdrop of the current discussions involving climate change and sustainability, the wider adoption of NFTs makes the issue of the energy consumption of blockchain technology, and carbon emissions resulting from it, more real and relevant.” https://www.morningstar.ca/ca/news/211282/are-nfts-hurting-the-environment.aspx We live in interesting times!

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree, Paul. It is heartening to know that we are able to remember what was, so that we can understand how important it is to embrace a more wholistic way of consumption. The older I get, the more I think “old” is the new “new!” LOL

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Yes, a fascinating tour! Just cleaning the old keys on typewriters was a messy, annoying task. I can’t even imagine all the work it required to keep a printing operation clean and productive! I remember using an old toothbrush to clean the keys when they got gunked up with ribbon ink and changing ribbons too. Typesetting is undoubtedly a vanishing skill. And they certainly didn’t have ‘white-out’ for those large plates. Thank you for reminding us, Rebecca.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I laughed out loud when I read your comment about ‘white-out’ for those large plates, Mary Jo. Thank you so much for stepping back into history with me. The case room was the most fascinating place for me. I marveled at the skill the time required to create the letters. Each of them had to be cast as an individual metal type. The process was labour intensive. I read that the intention of early printers was to make their books resemble manuscripts as closely as possible. I understand that Gutenberg included several variations of each letter to mimic the irregularities of handwriting. I typeset my name the day of the tour – and that took time, so I can only imagine what it was like to create a full page! YIKES! P.S. I remember those ribbons and cleaning the typewriter keys! So much fun. Sending hugs!

      Liked by 3 people

  5. Such an interesting tour, Rebecca. It’s amazing that the printing machines in this museum are kept in good working order so that visitors can try their hand at printing. I’m sure you enjoyed every minute and learned a lot. Thanks for sharing your experience here.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was amazed that a printing press purchased in the 1870’s, which was originally powered by a belt drive from a water wheel, could still be used to create stationary and cards in 2021! I understand that in 1952, the owners purchased an automated Heidelberg Pleten printing press, but even that is 70 years old. My washer and dryer, fridge and stove couldn’t last that long!!! I remember that the day of our visit was quite chilly with intermittent rain. We had taken the train and bus to the shop so had to wait until the next bus came along. Across the street was a pub that welcomed us with open arms and a warm drink, until our bus came along. The best part about travel is the kind people you meet along the way. Sending many hugs your way!!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I am so glad that you traveled with me in our virtual time machine. I have found that some books that date back to the 1950’s have a better quality and longer lasting paper than more modern books. Do you remember when they made paper out of cloth? I understand that paper made of cotton or linen is of “archival” quality. I am going to do some research into this – thank you for your comments that prompted this enquiry!!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I love virtual time travel, even if it is only back to 2015 when we visited R Smail & Sons Printers. When I looked at the typesetting in the photos, I noticed that the printers were using block systems that were very much like the WordPress’s Gutenberg system. If you looked closely there were standard blocks that were easily put into place. I now understand why WordPress used the word “Gutenberg.” I am looking back into the history of paper making. Do you remember when paper making companies collected rags to create paper? Thank you so much for joining me in a virtual warp back into time. Hugs!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. That’s interesting about the blocks. And I don’t remember paper made from rags, but I do remember making my own paper in girl scouts. It was very lumpy but fun for painting. Ha ha. It’s amazing what went into printing and how much work was entailed. No wonder books were so expensive and reserved for the wealthy.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Oh, how time democratizes things/events. Consider literacy and how we now take reading and writing as a given. The ability to read is a gift that keeps on giving and giving and giving….

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  6. This is an amazing article, so very interesting. I read everyone of the comments and I do not know that I can add anything better or more complimentary. I enjoyed the video with so many ancient “articles”, I even glimpsed an old telephone, I doubt it was still in use (or possibly). It is amazing that the whole wide array of machines are still in use. Much care of them, I am sure, is taken each day. I could add more, but so much has been said in the great comments. Thank you for taking the time for the research and the video! ! !

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Frances – I am delighted that you enjoyed going back into history with us! Do you remember printing schedules and notices using a mimeograph machine? I remember you typing up the words on a stencil. When it was attached to the mimeograph, the ink would be forced through the stencil onto the paper. The ink was all over our hands. But it worked beautifully for small quantities. My thought as I read all of the comments was the overarching need throughout the centuries of humanity’s need to connect, to share knowledge, to communicate. How far we have come, and as we discussed in a recent telephone discussion, there is much more to come. Thank you for you support and encouragement that has been with me through the years.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Great to see all that preserved and functional!

    Don’t think I would have fancied the job of sorting the type back into the trays though 😉

    Wonder where all the pixels go after your done displaying a page on-screen…

    ✨🙏🕉🌱🌿🌳🌻💚🕊☯🐉✨

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Graham – I was so confused about how to position the letters backwards. It took me a few minutes to figure out how to place the letters of my name on the tray. And then we had a demonstration of how fast it could be. I was impressed! I googled the question on what happens to the pixels. No one seems to know – it will remain a mystery of the ages…..

      Liked by 2 people

  8. What a fascinating place to visit, REbecca. I would love to visit it. I am starting to feel as if we will never leave southern Africa again. We are into our third wave now and this time it is coming very close to home with a lot of people we know testing positive. I think people have became to lackadaisical about covid in Johannesburg.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. This past year has been an awakening moment for the world, Robbie. Connecting with you over the past months has been a vital link to the outside. We are in the third wave too. Travel restrictions for non-essential travel between regions in British Columbia are in place until June 15th so there is a hint that things are slowly (very slowly) opening up. So now, I am going back in my photos to relive the moments.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Hi Rebecca, I am also sharing older pictures in some cases. Fortunately, some parts of South Africa are quite rural and remote and we can still go to those places fairly safely. We are planning to go to the Wonderwerk Caves in Kuruman the Northern Cape in August. There are bushman paintings at the mouth of this cave. I love caves so I am quite excited to go there. You can read about it here: https://www.sa-venues.com/things-to-do/northerncape/wonderwerk-cave/ We will also visit the Kalahari game reserve and the the Kuruman Eye.

        Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh, I would love to know more about your experiences as a proofreader and editor, Inese. The progress of printing has been done in incremental steps – sometimes it feels like the printing of today is the same as it was even 10 years ago. We forget the steps that have been taken by those who came before. Consider the many changes in paint over the years. How the colours have been created. And then there is the progress of photography. I continue to learn! I enjoy our conversations – thank you for joining me at R. Smail & Sons.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Ah-ha, so here you are, Rebecca. 🙂 (Your gravatar links to one of your other blogs, and my Internet goes out frequently… the short story is that I don’t get around as much as I’d like.)
    I love Victorian things (except corsets!) so this post is a delight. Have a lovely rest of the week. Hugs on the wing.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. How wonderful to see you comment, Teagan. What I like best about blogs is that you will never miss anything because you can go back to past articles and enjoy them all over again. I knew that you would love this place. Everything was in place as it was over 100 years ago. I imagined all the stories and conversations that were held in these rooms. If only the walls and machines could talk. Hugs coming back with swift wings.

      Liked by 2 people

  10. What a wonderful post, as in my very young days, the remanence of the what you display of the printing era were still around, while the conversion to more modern print and publication methods were taking place, as I started a career in that industry. Most interesting to me for having been there in those years and witnessing the evolution for some twenty years forward.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The idea of witnessing progress has been something that has been in my mind of late. We live forward, but we understand backward how much has transpired in a few years. I remember my grandfather saying to me, “I saw when the first car was made and I lived to see a man walk on the moon.” I remember my first box camera and now we have powerful mobile phone cameras that record GPS and archive our moments in pixels. The first time I saw a fax machine, I felt that the future had come to meet us. And it does – every day. I am delighted you joined me in at the printers! Thank you.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Absolutely fascinating, Rebecca!
    Love the photos, and I really felt the past in this post.

    Yes, technology has made many things much easier. It has taken us from the rotary dial, to voice command……. and beyond is around the corner.
    One could look at this old printer’s shoppe & other parts of the past, and say “quaint”.
    Then reproduce that quaint look, on a computer.
    However, “better” is another question. The answer to that is both subjective and objective.

    For me it’s like; if I could I would make a collage of realities of times and cultures. I’d need a time machine, of course, and solar scissors and magic galactic glue. Then I could put it all together in a reality that suited me. I think there would be others that would like that world.
    xo

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Dear Resa – you have a huge amount of magic surrounding the AGMs!!! Time travel has always been a secret hope for many over the centuries. I have often thought that when a similar theme or idea occurs in every generation, then there may be a possibility that it is there, but simply not yet discovered. Who would have thought a man would walk on the moon, 100 years ago? I just read “If a future of supersonic travel beckons, so too super-fast train transport. The first full-scale test track for the Hyperloop was built in Nevada, which if successful could revolutionise how we get around. The Hyperloop would use pods that travel through tunnels in a vacuum at speeds of up to 700 miles per hour. The four-and-a-half-hour flight between Melbourne and Sydney in Australia would for instance be cut to just 55 minutes.” https://www.lonelyplanet.com/articles/10-tech-developments-2017-will-make-travel-easier-future

      Can you imagine!!! Perhaps time travel is creating more time. And – what appears to be magic, is rather common place, after all. The real magic, was how R Smail & Sons Printers were able to keep those old machines running and in good repair.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Agree, R Small & Sons Printers were the real passionate deal.
        Makes me think about old treadle sewing machines vs todays machines. LOTS to be said there! In the end, one could build a garment with a treadle, every bit as fab as one built on a machine today. There are cases I can cite where a Treadle can tread where a modern machine cannot!
        AND the treadle needs no electricity, and you get exercise at the same time. lol
        Resa in a pod….. could work! LOL
        Love our conversations. Will check the link now!

        Liked by 2 people

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