'Too Good a
Press to Let Die?'

By Fred Williams
Editor-Publisher, Type & Press
Summer 1979

Although Sigwalt last rites were held over 17 years ago it's quite possible the little press may awakened from its long sleep and be available for Letterpressers. This may take place if plans of a Chicago firm are successful.

Not as well-known or as widely advertised as the Kelsey presses, many pressmen are unaware of the fine craftsmanship that went into every Sigwalt press. In spite of its smallness, it could turn out work comparable with larger & heavier platen presses.

The originator and manufacturer of this well-made press was John Sigwalt who was born in 1836 in France. When 16, he immigrated with his family to a farm in the area of northern Illinois.

Young John, upon completion of a machinist apprenticeship in Chicago, became involved in the manufacture of sewing machines for the next 20 years.

After the historic Chicago fire of 1871 destroyed his factory Sigwalt disposed of his sewing machine interests and began manufacture of a ticket stamping device he had invented. The business prospered and he expanded into the making of a line of stamping machines.

By 1883 The Sigwalt Manufacturing Co. of Chicago had been incorporated with capital stock of $100,00 with Sigwalt as president. Other members of the family served in other executive capacities. The firm employed 50.

About this time William A. Kelsey patented his small table-top hand press and began selling it by mail. Called the Excelsior, it sold well, attracting competition. Before long more than a score of small presses flooded the market. Many were cheap toys, capable of only crude printing.

Eventually most of these firms went out of business or were purchased by the Kelsey Press Co.

Sigwalt moved into this small press market with two models — the Chicago and the Nonpareil. The former, with a front lever was available in sizes of 1 5/8x2 3/4" to 2 1/2x4." Some models had to be hand-inked while others had one or two rollers. Smaller models sold as low as $1! The Chicagos resembled the Baltimorean press.

The Nonpareil, with two rollers and a side arm handle, was available in five sizes, ranging from 2 1/2x4" to 6x9." The largest model sold for $43.75. The press was similar to the Official press made by Golding. Later the Nonpareil became known as the Ideal.

Sigwalts came with impression screws & saddle arm hooks that fit into grooves in roller wheels to prevent any side play in the inking rollers. It was claimed that these presses were so delicately balanced that only one finger was required for impression!

The company also offered a complete line of printing accessories including foundry type, borders, paper; etc. A font of new type could be had for $1!

Commercial printers employed the little Sigwalts for small short run jobs. Absence of side rods made them ideal for printing on wide sheets of paper (maps and signs). One greeting card imprinter had 50 in operation. It became much sought after by the private pressman, the "bed-room printer" and other Letterpressers who had limited space but needed a precision press that could handle large type forms.

Ray Caddington of Gary, Ind., says, "I have used small presses for 25 years. Built feed boards for my 6x9 Sigwalt, enabling me to print 1200 i.p.h., sheets jogged up square. I sure couldn't do that on a Kelsey. On the Sigwalt I can do 90% of the makeready with the impression screws. If I am printing from Lino slugs that are low on one end, I can tilt platen up on one comer, lock it in with the nut and print without the platen rocking on impression. Would like to see that done on a Kelsey!

Thriving, The Sigwalt Company moved their factory to 2011 N. Lawndale Ave., Chicago. Depresssion 6x9 prices were $75.

The press was sold by Acme Type Foundry and other dealers. For a short while it was sold by Sears Roebuck & Co. By the '60s the prices of Ideals had risen to: 3x5" $68, 4x6" $102, 5x7 1/2" $137 and the 6x9", $171.

Death of the Sigwalt family & falling sales forced the sale of the firm to Bankers & Merchants Rubber Stamp Co. in 1962. Later the parts and manufacturIng rights were resold to The Al Frank Printing Equipment and Supply Co., also of Chicago.

About 1974, Elmer Porter, a retired Post Office Monotype operator organized the J.E.T. Mfg. Co. & purchased the rights. Poor health resulted in him only assembling a few Sigwalts. Prices on the 4x6" Ideal had jumped to $297 and to $536 on the 6x9"!

Manufacturing rights, parts and jigs for the full production are now in the hands of The Tampico Press, 1919 South Blue Island Ave., Chicago. Just recently they have said that they plan to start production on the Sigwalt press. When? That's the question.

(Ye Ed wishes to thank the following for supplying information for this article: J. S. Johnson, Mike Franklin and Elmer Porter, of Chicago; Ray Cuddington, Gary, Ind.; Dave Churchman, Dave Peat, Ind., Steve Saxe, New York City and Herman Logan, Santa Ana, Calif.)