The Liberty:
a Study in Exoticia

By Fred Williams
Editor-Publisher, Type & Press
October 1976

The platen press reached its zenith of popularity in the 1870s and ‘80s. Fierce cut-rate competition resulted in hundreds of different “clam shell,” crank, parallel impression and other types to flood the market. Most were merely imitation of others—but a few were unique in design.

It is doubtful if any of them were as exotic as the old operating Liberty Jobber, originated in 1860 by ingenious German Frederick Otto Degener of New York.

Altho similar to the old style Gordon, the Liberty performed many of its operations in a most curious manner. Its movements were so grotesque that it never had any imitators.

Unusual was its sophisticated inking system which employed no roller arms, a bizarre action of the bed and use of a counter-weight to balance press bed during its eccentric movements.
Degener had been employed in the late 1850s by George Phineas Gordon in drafting plans for the Franklin Press. Degener, also was patentee of original designs of both cylinder and job presses.

The year before the Civil War started Degener left Gordon and secured patents on a new, different job press. Forming partnerships with another German, F.M. Weiler, the building of the Liberty began under the firm name of Degener & Weiler (NY).

The Liberty, operated by foot treadle, turned a big gear wheel with a side crank. The bed, supported on legs pivoted at their lower ends, was also balanced on a shaft through the frame. Bed and platen were brought together in a hinging motion by the crank. A throw-off operated off the main shaft which supported press bed.

Three rollers rotating in fixed vertical guides furnished ink to form. An adjustable top fountain contacted by a movable brayer replenished the ink disk.

After swinging back from impression, the Liberty bed oddly tilted back horizontally, passing under the rollers! When it had reached end of this movement the bed was completely behind press frame, parallel with floor! No wonder the press was characterized as being half a press long when closed and two presses long when it was opened!

The Liberty, in spite of excessive bed movement “pumped” easily, being delicately balanced by the counter-weight below the bed and for a time ran second in popularity to Gordon’s press.

Claimed as the “quietest and lightest jobber ever made,” the most perfect ink distribution, full sized roller riders, knifeless ink fountain that could be regulated while running—over 10,000 Liberty platens were sold.

Degener’s death in 1873acu sed his son to join the firm until being bought out in 1877 by Weiler. The firm became known as the F.M. Weiler Co. (New York).

Four years later Weiler established a factory in Berlin, Germany and the Liberty attained world-wide fame but U. S. sales faltered. It continued to be sold here until 1897 but after 1890 all presses were actually made in Germany. They continued to be erected there until World War I.

No consideration for the preservation of the heritage of printing resulted in the majority of the Liberty presses being scrapped. Eventually Degener’s press, with its unusual bed that moved from vertical to horizontal position, soon vanished from American printshops and was all but forgotten. One Liberty that survived may be seen at the exhibit of printing artifacts of the N.Y. Historical Assn., at Copperstown.

[There is a working Liberty Press at the Kelley Park museum grounds (San Jose, CA) at the Printing Office (open at 10 a.m. on the second Saturday of each month).]