|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.
|The orignal GPO building seen along H Street, circa 1861. (Source: Government Printing Office.)|
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.)|
|Inside a GPO workroom, c. 1892. (stereoview from the author's collection.)|
|Women working at the GPO bindery, c. 1892. (stereoview from the author's collection.|
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.
"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).|
|Women working at the GPO, c. 1912 (Source: Library of Congress).|
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.)|
|In the GPO bindery, c. 1912 (Source: Library of Congress).|
|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).|
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).|
|Peter James at work (photo by the author).|
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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.