Wright and Wright Printers

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Wright Activities Before and After 1903

The Wright Brothers had two earlier businesses before their aircraft business. Their first one was as writers, editors, publishers and printers. Their second one was as bicycle manufacturers and sellers of bicycles. This article is about their first business together — the printing business.

During their printing days, Wilbur and Orville wrote, edited and published 52 issues of a weekly newspaper, “The West Side News,” and 78 issues of a daily newspaper, “The Evening Item.” In addition they printed hundreds of job orders.

Orville started his printing career at the age of 15 in 1886. He and a neighborhood friend, Ed Sines, who owned a small printing outfit, printed their first newspaper, The Midget, for their school friends. They intended the paper to be a weekly, but it only lasted for one issue because Orville’s father Milton was upset at their effort.

The problem was that the young printers left the third page blank except for their company name, Sines and Wright. They were tiring because each page had to be printed separately and all type had to be set by hand. Milton lectured them: “They had not done themselves justice in slighting that third page.” Readers would “get the impression they were lazy and shiftless.”

Sines and Wright continued in the printing business. They originally started did their printing at Sines’ house, but business improved enough that they obtained a larger press and moved to a shed in the back of the Wright home on Hawthorne Street. On cold days they did their typesetting inside the house. They had enough business to hire a neighbor boy to help out for 15 cents a week.

The “Sines and Wright” business arrangement changed after a dispute over what to do with some popping corn they had been paid for a job. Orville wanted to buy more type. Sines wanted to eat the popcorn. They settled the dispute by Orville buying out Sines’ share and Sines agreed to continue working as an employee of Orville. This arrangement lasted for the duration of the Wrights’ printing business, which was sold in 1899.

Both brothers were exposed to the printing business at an early age. Their father was a bishop in the United Brethren in Christ church and a religious writer, editor and publisher.

In 1869 he was elected the editor of the church publication, “The Religious Telescope.” The position required him and the family to move to Dayton, Ohio where the church owned a large printing building in the heart of downtown Dayton.

Milton’s office was in the building and Orville and Wilbur visited him often and had free reign of the building. Orville especially was thrilled with the big steam powered printing presses.

Orville was interested in a bigger press to use. So in the spring of 1888 when he was 16, with the help of older brother Wilbur, he built a printing press out of a folding top of sister Katharine’s old baby buggy, a discarded tombstone for a press bed, firewood and other scrap parts from a junkyard. In a few weeks the press was printing 1,000 sheets an hour.

An experienced printer from Denver took a look at the press and reportedly said: “It works, but I don’t see how the heck it works.”

Orville improved his knowledge and skills in printing by working during two summers in a local printing establishment when he was 15 and 16 years of age. He dropped out of high school before his senior year so that he could devote full time to his printing business.

In March 1889, Orville, 17, began printing and publishing a weekly newspaper, the “West Side News.” It had three-columns on four pages. The subscription price was 40 cents a year or 10 cents for 10 weeks.

The “News” did well enough that in April Orville moved to a small office 1210 West Third Street. The paper expanded from three columns to four.

A significant event in the life of the business occurred at this time — Wilbur joined the business. The masthead showed Wilbur as editor and Orville as publisher.

Wilbur had Yale and a teaching career in mind after high school until an unfortunate accident changed his plans. While paying ice hockey during the winter of 1885 he was hit in the mouth with a hockey stick. The blow knocked out several teeth. The physical and mental impact on Wilbur overwhelmed him.

A number of serious side complications developed after the incident. He experienced heart palpitations and digestive problems. There was concern that permanent damage might result. The prescription was an extended period of rest.

By the close of 1886 his physical ailments seemed to have gone away, but he was left with depression that lasted for an extended period. His mental state wasn’t helped by the serious fatal illness of his mother who had developed tuberculosis and became an invalid before she died July 4, 1989. During her illness Wilbur devoted himself to nursing his mother.

The family continued to be concerned about Wilbur. Older brother Lorin, then living in Kansas, wrote to Katharine: “What does Will do? He ought to be doing something. Is he still cook and chambermaid?”

It is not clear what the conversation was between Wilbur and Orville, but Orville must have convinced Wilbur to come to work in the print shop. This event helped bring Wilbur out of his funk. It was some three years after Wilbur’s accident.

One of the first publications printed under Wilbur’s authorship was a short church tract entitled “Scenes in the Church Commission During the Last Day of Its Session.” It was printed in 1888 and was the earliest record of the imprint of WRIGHT BROS., JOB PRINTERS.

In April of 1890 the Wrights started a new daily newspaper named “The Evening Item.” This paper had five columns with more than half of the columns containing national and international news. It also carried the baseball scores of the American Association and the National League.

The July 17th and 26th editions of the “Item” carried articles about the activities of the famous German glider experimenter Otto Lilienthal. Lilienthal would later be one those experimenters that the Wrights would cite has having an influence on their own flying experiments. At the time I don’t think the Wrights were aware of the influence flying would have on their lives.

The publication of the “Item” ceased on July 30, 1890 after only four months of publication. The brothers found that they could make more money doing job printing. There were twelve newspapers in the Dayton and the competition was fierce.

In late 1890 they moved to the new Hoover Block at the corner of West Third and Williams St. The sign read, “Wright and Wright Job Printers.”

At this location they printed a black-oriented newspaper, “Dayton Tattler,” and other printing jobs for Paul Laurence Dunbar, the famous black poet. Dunbar and Orville were high school classmates and friends. Dunbar chalked on the wall of Wrights’ shop at this location:

“Orville Wright is out of sight

In the printing business.

No other mind is half so bright

As his’n is.”

The United Brethren Church split into two churches and Milton became a Bishop and publishing agent for the Church of the United Brethren in Christ (Old Constitution). Milton’s church had no printing facility so as a result Wright and Wright printed many of the church publications.

In 1892 the brothers were becoming increasingly interested in bicycles and established their first bicycle shop at 1005 West Third St. The shop provided sales and service.

They continued their printing business including several publications. One was an advertising publication named “Tid-Bits” that was printed for special occasions and holidays. Advertising from local merchants supported the publication, which included light-hearted reading.

They printed a magazine-style publication in 1894 named “Snap-Shots at Current Events.” The sixteen-page document contained many articles about bicycles, essays and jokes.

In February 1896 they shortened their publication to just “Snap-Shots” and moved to 22 South Williams St. They listed Wright Cycle Co. as publisher of the magazine. The printing business was on the second floor and the bicycle business was on the first floor. This is the first time that both businesses were co-located.

Several issues displayed large advertisements of the Wright Cycle Co. In April they ceased publishing “Snap-Shots.” It was at this location that they first began to talk seriously about the possibility that man might fly.

In 1897 they moved both the bicycle and printing businesses to 1127 West Third St. This is the building in which the gliders and Wright Flyer were conceived and built.

The printing operation was on the second floor. The financial assets of both businesses were co-mingled.

Much of the printing business by now had been delegated to Ed Sines as the brothers shifted their attention to bicycles. In 1899 Sines reinjured a bad knee and could no longer handle the printing job. It was a convenient time for the Wrights to sell the business to “Stevens and Stevens” who ran a printing business close by.

Orville never did lose interest in printing. In 1930 he designed and built a printing press for the Miami Wood Specialty Co.

Reference: Wright and Wright Printers: The Other Career of Wilbur and Orville by Charlotte K. and August E. Brunsman, 1988.

Previous post:

Next post: