Streets of Washington Presents – The Government Printing Office in Swampoodle

Streets of Washington covers some of DC’s most interesting buildings and history and is written by John DeFerrari. John is also the author of Lost Washington DC.

The reputation of DC’s charmingly-named Swampoodle neighborhood was for its tough Irish street brawlers. Both the Irish toughs and their swampy ground are now gone, but one immense institution has remained there through it all, the Government Printing Office at H and North Capitol Streets, NW. The printing office—nicknamed “The Swamp” in its early days—has been one of Washington’s most contradictory institutions. Once a grimy factory of hard-working laborers culled largely from the surrounding rough-and-tumble neighborhood, for 150 years it’s also been an elite producer of elegant government documents, including extraordinary hand-bound volumes of the nation’s most precious records.

GPO’s 1903 building (postcard from the author’s collection).

The 1903 GPO building today (photo by the author).

There has always been a recognized need for printing official government documents; the British designated “publick printers” for this purpose in the early colonies. Benjamin Franklin was one, producing official documents for Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and New Jersey. After independence, the U.S. Congress continued the practice of chartering private companies to do public printing, usually at fixed rates, but as the 19th century progressed and the need for printed documents mushroomed, private companies fortunate enough to be designated as official printers were increasingly accused of fraud and corruption. Congress put an end to all that by passing a law establishing the Government Printing Office in 1861. It would be a completely government-operated facility, and its chief would carry the title of Public Printer.

To outfit the new GPO, the government purchased the printing office that Cornelius Wendell (1811-1870) had built in 1857 at the corner of H and North Capitol. Wendell had been an official printer, and most of the government’s printing work was already taking place at this site, one of the largest and most complete printing plants in the country.

Continues after the jump.

The orignal GPO building seen along H Street, circa 1861. (Source: Government Printing Office.)

The Swampoodle neighborhood that Wendell had chosen for his plant was on the outskirts of the inhabited part of the city in those days. Sometime in the early 19th century the Swampoodle name—a contraction of “swamp” and “puddle”—had been given to the area north of where Union Station now stands. It encompassed a stretch of low-lying land between two branches of the Tiber Creek, which flowed south into the City Canal just west of the Capitol. Whenever it rained, the creek branches would flood, producing numerous swamps and puddles.

Swampy areas are of course less attractive to build on, and they were often relegated to the urban poor in the 19th century. New York City’s notorious Five Points neighborhood, memorialized in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, grew up over a swampy, filled-in pond called the Collect. Another poor and lawless DC neighborhood, Murder Bay, was likewise situated on swampy ground. The impoverished Irish immigrants of Swampoodle were forever looking for a lucky break to make their lives better, if only for a fleeting moment. When freight cars on the nearby Baltimore & Ohio railroad tracks crashed one day in 1861 and spilled their contents, the women and children of Swampoodle came running with pans and buckets to scoop up the load of molasses that had streamed out of one car’s broken barrels. “It was quite a godsend for them, but the loss was the Company’s,” observed The Evening Star.

However hard life was, Swampoodlers were a feisty lot, famous for their hot tempers. Police recruits would dread being assigned to patrol the neighborhood, and when arrests were made, the cops were often attacked by gangs such as the Swampoodle Rangers, based in Jackson Alley, or Doggie McGraw’s boys out of Cabbage Alley. A certain Officer Moore, for example, “came very near losing his life at the hands of over 500 roughs,” according to The Washington Post, when he attempted to arrest James Quill, “a notorious character,” one day in 1884. One of the “roughs,” J. Cornell, started the fight by kicking Moore in the stomach. Other cops joined in, and the crowd fought its way “inch by inch” to the local police station.

It was in the heart of this bleak neighborhood that the GPO set up shop in 1861 at the dawn of the Civil War. It must have been a welcome sight, offering employment for 350 workers. In addition to pressmen and feeders for some 26 steam-powered presses, there were also armies of proofreaders and typesetters, as well as legions of bindery workers who stitched books together by hand. Most employees were union members, belonging either to the typesetters’ union or the bookbinders’ union.

Lewis Douglass and his wife Amelia (Source: National Park Service.)

African-Americans enjoyed early entree into the printing office, although they faced a prolonged struggle for equality with their white counterparts. Controversy erupted in 1869 when Lewis Douglass (1840-1908), son of Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), joined the GPO as the first African-American typesetter. The all-powerful Columbia Typographical Union was deeply offended by this, despite Douglass’ prominent father and his own clear abilities. An Evening Star reporter who went poking around the Swamp was told that Douglass “sets as good a proof as any in the building,” having learned the trade working at his father’s newspaper, The North Star. However, Douglass faced constant intimidation. “Threats of death, cross bones and skulls, and every other mean to force him out were employed,” the Washington Bee later recalled. Douglass was never allowed to join the union and as a result received lower wages than a union member, but he nevertheless had plenty of moral encouragement. President Grant visited the Swamp at one point and personally urged Douglass to stick it out, which he did. Douglass was later named a notary public for the District by President Benjamin Harrison.

Inside a GPO workroom, c. 1892. (stereoview from the author’s collection.)

In the years after the war, labor issues often predominated at the Swamp. Certain jobs were designated for women (as was common practice in the industry) because they could be paid less than men. These included some of the most tedious and mind-numbing occupations, such as feeding sheets of paper into presses operated by men or sewing signatures of paper into bound books. Women press feeders had struck successfully for a modest pay increase during the war but generally made limited headway in improving their conditions. In Ten Years In Washington (1882), journalist Mary Clemmer Ames (1839-1884) recounted a visit to the GPO to marvel at the “long rows of women, chiefly young girls” hard at work in the stitching room. One in particular “seemed to have the St. Vitus’ dance. Every muscle and nerve in her body flew. The very nerves in her face twitched with the quick intensity of her movement; while her fingers stuck the needle and drew the thread with the persistency of a perpetual motion.”

Ames went on to interview the young girl:

“You should be paid good wages to work like this,” I said.
“It is because I am paid so little that I have to work like this,” she answered, not relaxing an atom.
“How much?”
“Thirty cents a-piece.”
“How many can you stitch in a day?”
“Well, if I work like this all day, nine.”
“But I should think it would kill you to work like this all the time.”
“I’ve been doing it for four years, and I’m not dead yet.”

The original GPO building, c. 1895 (Source: Government Printing Office).

The GPO had set exacting standards for itself for quality and performance. Beginning in 1873, it took on responsibility for publishing every day the complete proceedings of the previous day in Congress, a job previously performed by a private company. In addition to the daily Congressional Record, the office might be called upon to produce any number of other special publications on an overnight basis as well, with all the work—setting type, proofing, printing individual sheets, folding and cutting the printed sheets, and assembling and binding the final products—being done by hand throughout the night.

Women working at the GPO, c. 1912 (Source: Library of Congress).

All of this productivity put an enormous strain on the GPO’s aging facilities. The original 1857 printing office had been incrementally expanded many times over through the years, and by the 1890s it filled the northern half of its block, a sprawling, labyrinthine firetrap in constant danger of structural failure. The Post editorialized in 1890 that the building “is liable to be blown down or burned up at a moment’s notice [and] is in every way a shame and disgrace to the Government.” After the third floor of Ford’s Theatre collapsed in June 1893, killing 22 government workers, fears were heightened that printing office employees might face a similar fate. A senator visiting the Swamp asked one of the superintendents there what would happen if such a calamity befell the GPO, which had long been appealing to Congress for a new building. “It’s my candid opinion that an outraged community would take the law into their own hands and hang every Senator and Representative they could lay their hands on,” answered the superintendent, meaning every word he said. This, after all, was Swampoodle.

Congress finally acted in 1898, appropriating funds for a new building to be constructed on the land immediately south of the existing complex. The new red-brick Romanesque Revival building, designed by prominent D.C. architect James G. Hill (1841-1913), was begun in 1899 and finished in 1903 at a cost of $2.4 million. Hill, who had designed the Bureau of Engraving and Printing building in 1880, created a massive but very distinguished building with a toothy “Italian modillion” cornice. The structure, which was designed with numerous features to support the safety and well-being of its 2,000 workers, was admired at the time as a “leading wonder of Washington City.” The GPO immediately filled its eight acres of floor space and still kept the old firetrap next door in service for functions that couldn’t fit in the giant new edifice. From here on out, the GPO would be known as “the Big Shop” rather than “the Swamp.”

The same year the new building was completed—1903—marked the beginning of a sea change in the neighborhood at large as almost 100 families were displaced from their homes to make way for the new Union Station complex just a few blocks to the east. The houses of these families were razed and extensive landscaping was undertaken, including burying the branches of the Tiber Creek and thus hastening the end of the old Swampoodle. The neighborhood did not lose all its feistiness, however. One day in 1907, a couple of young workers at a nearby junk shop played a prank on the GPO by leaving an apparent bomb at the engine shop, causing consternation among many employees. Superintendent Homer Collins, perpetually unfazed, investigated and declared the iron ball a harmless remnant of an old andiron. “This thing wouldn’t hurt a New Jersey mosquito, unless it accidentally fell upon the insect,” he concluded.

View of Swampoodle from the Capitol, c. 1909. The new GPO building is the brown structure to the left of center (postcard from the author’s collection.)

After a surge in workload during World War I, the GPO entered the Progressive era under the leadership of Public Printer George H. Carter in 1921. Appointed by President Warren G. Harding, a former newspaper publisher, Carter took it as his mission to “operate the ‘big shop’ on a strictly business basis, to stop waste and extravagances…” Economizing on supplies, he was able to fund an expanded top floor on the new building, including an employee auditorium dubbed Harding Hall, perhaps the only memorial to Warren G. Harding in the city. Carter made headlines during Prohibition when he moved to crack down on gambling in nearby shops on H Street that allegedly were bankrupting GPO employees. Carter lambasted the Metropolitan Police Department for its ineffectiveness in controlling both gambling and liquor sales, and the police responded by posted sentinels at a fruit store, two cigar stores, and a barber shop near the GPO. Carter called this move “stupid procedure” and accused the police of protecting a major gambling and bootlegging operation. Ultimately hearings were held in Congress, a number of arrests were made, and several GPO employees were suspended. But these efforts were soon overtaken by more pressing concerns; Prohibition was repealed and the onset of World War II focused attention on wartime production.

In the GPO bindery, c. 1912 (Source: Library of Congress).

As before, an increased workload meant the need for new buildings, and two large structures were begun in the 1930s. The first, a limestone-clad, “stripped classical” structure with art moderne carvings, was built directly across the street from the 1903 building. Completed in 1938, this was a storage building for paper and other supplies, with a railroad spur running right into the rear. A tunnel under North Capitol Street provided access to the main GPO buildings. While it was being constructed, work was also finally underway to demolish the old complex of original GPO buildings, the central part of which dated back to 1857. They were replaced with a new structure of about the same size and massing as the 1903 building but in a much more restrained, stripped-classical style. Designed by Louis A. Simon, this new building was completed in 1940, giving the GPO complex the overall appearance that it retains to this day.

The 1940 GPO building. The building’s color is actually similar to that of the 1903 structure to the left (postcard from the author’s collection).

Even those expansions would soon prove inadequate to keep up with the government’s insatiable demand for printed products. In the early 1960s, the idea was advanced that a modern facility out in the suburbs, where a spacious single-story plant could be constructed, would be much more efficient than the GPO’s complex of multistory buildings. Officials considered a number of different sites, including one at 2nd and D Streets SW, another at Bolling Air Force Base in southeast, a third on the grounds of the former National Training School for Boys near Eastern Avenue in northeast, and a fourth at the Brentwood site near New York Avenue NE, which eventually was taken by the Post Office Department for its city mail operations. Sites in Prince George’s and Charles counties were also considered but faced stiff opposition from those who didn’t want the GPO’s thousands of jobs to leave the District.

The GPO began to lease space throughout the region to accommodate its needs as the stalemate over relocation dragged on, but by the early 1980s a turning point had been reached. The GPO workforce had peaked at 8,572 in 1972 and was beginning to decline. It became clear that the rise of electronic data processing would reduce the need for printed items, and thus the GPO could focus on consolidating its operations at its North Capitol Street complex rather than looking for new space. The trend accelerated in the 1990s with the advent of the World Wide Web. The office currently employs just 1,920 on operations that are tailored to the digital age, including producing smart cards and electronically-enabled passports as well as traditional printed items.

An apprentice marbles a book, c. 1930s (Source: Government Printing Office).

Despite all the advances in technology, certain tasks at the GPO have remained unchanged, decade after decade. One is the ancient art of marbling the edges of special books, such as the official printed volumes of congressional and presidential papers. Very few of the GPO’s publications reach this level, where the finest paper and inks are used, the printed pages bound by hand, the edges and endpapers beautifully marbled, and the cover boards wrapped in gold-stamped morocco leather. In July 1948, the Evening Star ran an article on the “lost art” of marbling in which it profiled the GPO’s Tommy Barnes, one of maybe a half dozen people in the country who knew how to do it at the time. Barnes would spatter paint into a vat of gummy fluid where it would spread out into designs that resembled the veins in marble. Unique effects were then added by running a special comb across the surface. Then Barnes carefully dipped the edges of a book onto the surface, transferring the exquisite, colorful patterns to the book. Barnes noted that the marbling also had the practical benefit of protecting the book from bugs and dry rot.

Peter James at work (photo by the author).

Lost as it may have been in 1948, the art of marbling lives on today at the hands of Peter James, GPO’s head forwarder. Like all masters, James makes his exacting art look easy, though it clearly requires great skill and patience. He enjoys explaining the simplicity of his ingredients—the gummy fluid includes a substance that is also found in toothpaste, he points out. He nonchalantly dips the edge of an expensive handmade book into the paint-spattered vat and lifts it out. It is beautiful, of course. How disorienting to encounter this refuge of artisanry in the heart of the GPO’s vast industrial plant, where thousands of Washingtonians have labored over the years, but then again, how reassuring. The bookbinder’s craft lives on.

* * * * *

Special thanks to Gary Somerset, GPO Media and Public Relations Manager, and George Barnum, GPO Historian, for their assistance on this article. Additional sources included George Rothwell Brown, Washington: A Not Too Serious History (1930); Mary Clemmer, Ten Years In Washington (1882); Robert Washington Kerr, History of the Government Printing Office (1881); Margaret Leech, Reveille in Washington 1860-1865 (1941); Mrs. John A. Logan, ed., Thirty Years In Washington (1901); Kate Masur, An Example For All the Land (2010); Emil A. Press, “Growing Up in Swampoodle” and William H. Press, “Another View of Swampoodle” in Records of the Columbia Historical Society 1973-1974(1976); U.S. Government Printing Office, 100 GPO Years 1861-1961 (reprint 2010) and Keeping America Informed (2011); and numerous newspaper articles.

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