150 Years of Publishing: the Goverment Printing Office

Just like the IRS, the Government Printing Office (GPO) can point to an origin in the Civil War years. The agency began promoting it’s 150th anniversary last year, and has continued with information posted through its website. The GPO features its rich history in a PDF available there. So let me take a break from the martial aspects of the Civil War to (belatedly) discuss the GPO.

The GPO was formed amid controversy and no small amount of contention. Although proposed at several junctures in the early 19th century, the idea just didn’t have traction. The government turned to private industry for printing needs. Due to some rigidly established labor rates which benefited the printer at government expense, many companies prospered on these contracts. By 1860, those in favor of a government printing agency had enough traction to push the bill into law. With some serendipity, you might say, the GPO officially opened its doors on the first day of the Lincoln Administration. President Lincoln appointed John D. Defrees as the first Public Printer.

Defrees set out to firmly establish the GPO’s reputation. He demanded quality work, and sought to impress upon Congress the utility (and cost savings) of the GPO whenever possible. Defrees was staunchly anti-slavery and pro-union. Perhaps this carried over to how he managed the labor force at the GPO. In those early years, the majority of the workforce were union members. Defrees encouraged hiring of blacks and women in the GPO.

The original office buildings of the GPO stood at the corner of H and North Capitol Streets, in the Swampoodle section of Washington. A post over at the Streets of Washington blog offers details of the building, highlighting the newer buildings that replaced the original. I was struck by this wartime photo looking north from the Capitol:

Looking North from the US Capitol, June 1861

To the left is New Jersey Avenue. Right in the center, beyond the flag, is the original GPO building. And there is NO Union Station to the right! Far different view than a visitor would see today.

That original building was replaced, in parts I guess you could say. Today at H and North Capitol a 1940 building stands, with an earlier 1903 building just to the south. I’m fond of that earlier building, as it also houses the GPO’s bookstore.

Washington DC 6 July 12 013

The “block” architecture stands apart from the columned buildings elsewhere in Washington. This building was designed as a “factory” of sorts, churning out the documents the nation required for smooth operation.

But back to the Civil War… some of the earliest products of the GPO were Army Manuals (them being in such high demand).

Cover of 1863 edition, Instructions for Field Artillery

Unlike the Confederates, the U.S. government was able to print such manuals on their own paper with their own ink.

But those were simply pulp compared to the printing task undertaken by the GPO in the fall of 1862. Defrees supervised the printing of this rather important document for general distribution:

Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation

15,000 copies in that first batch according to the GPO’s website.

However, the GPO’s Civil War experience was not just ink and paper. Male workers at the GPO formed Companies F and G of the Interior Department Regiment. In July 1864, Company F manned part of the Washington Defenses in response to Confederate General Jubal Early’s raid.

The link between the GPO and the Civil War did not end there. Long after the war, the desire (if not need) arose to offer the public the primary documents of the war. So from the GPO came the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion – Army and Navy sets.

One wonders where we historians would be without the products of the GPO.

You can catch more about the GPO’s 150 year history, along with views of exhibits on display, in a video produced last year for their official 150 anniversary:

Let me conclude by repeating a line from an earlier post. Armies may fight with weapons and depend upon logistics to survive, but eventually the story must be committed to paper with ink. That’s the GPO’s contribution to our Civil War history.

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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