ILLIAM KELSEY was born in 1851 and raised in Meriden. He died in
Washington D.C. in 1935, the victim of a street car accident.
In 1871 guns and silver were the two principal manufacturing industries
of Meriden. Kelsey, aged twenty, was working as the editor to American
Sportsman, the house magazine of Parker Brothers, gun manufacturers. As
a boy he had owned Novelty, Lowe and Cottage presses -- three small
presses that were made for tradesmen to do their own printing, but had
become popular with boys too. This was just at the beginning of a craze
for amateur printing, and young Kelsey recognised that. He thought he
could make a better, cheaper press than was on the market. He worked
out drawings and patterns with the help of friends at Parker's,
particularly one Gamaliel Snow, and in 1872 he advertised his press for
$5. The response was magnificent. Kelsey's first batch of
advertisements cost him $200, and he estimated his profit at $7,000.
The only trouble was that he had not really tested the press before he
advertised it. The press didn't work.
Kelsey's style of business
From the only images we have of
that original press, it would seem that once the bed and platen were closed and
drawn down into the frame of the press, there was no leverage left for
pressure. Anyway, Kelsey hastily redrew, patterned and cast a
completely different press -- this one of his own design -- and he offered
it for $6 in a new catalogue. He sold some 800 presses his first year,
most of them for $5, but whether they were the unworkable model or the
first good press, one cannot say. So far as I know, no examples of that
first press survive -- if, indeed, they were ever distributed.
Kelsey's presses were made for him on contract by E. M. Lockwood until
1878, when Lockwood died, and Kelsey bought the shop. Lockwood had a
sideline of a lawnmower sharpening business, and it was said that for
some years lawnmowers were stacked up every spring, awaiting their turn
on the machines.
Kelsey's style of business was hard-nosed. He was unsentimental about
his Excelsior presses, which he saw as the bait for the real
money-making part of the business: cards, ink, type and other printing
supplies. He said later that he would have dumped the press
immediately, if it had failed to show a profit. One might question that
statement, though. His successor claimed that there were times when the
company was only floating on Kelsey's private funds.
sensitive about the word "hobbyist," and even "amateur," which were the
kiss of death to any manufacturer who wanted to deal with trade printers
too. He was untrained in advertising, and while his campaigns were bold
and brilliant, it took him years to realise that if he keyed his
advertisements, he would know which were working best ("Dept. Y.A." for
the Young America advertisements, for example). He made short work of
competition, buying out James Cook, Joseph Watson (maker of the Young America), and Benjamin Woods (Novelty).
And he crowed about his successes: "Dead. Competitors of this
establishment do not seem to prosper," he wrote in his catalogue in
1890, after swallowing Woods' Novelty company. He could also be nasty:
It having come to our notice that J. Cook (and Co), envious of the
business success of our establishment, and aping its mode of business,
has endeavored to steal some of our customers by offering certain
articles, purporting to be put up like ours, at a price less than ours.
Lest some be misled we give notice that We Will Fill Orders For Anything
This Party Offers, Or Ever May Offer Or Advertise, At Five Per Cent Less
Than His Prices... We make this offer because of the despicable
character of the competition we propose to Kill. Healthy competition we
welcome, but the other kind we mean to Fight till a different course is
adopted than aping our plans Entirely. (Connecticut Advertiser, May 1877)
James Cook had been Kelsey's landlord before starting his own press
business: perhaps that explains the personal tone in the notice. But
Joseph Watson, an independent maker of some very good small presses (such as the Young America), was
also treated roughly. Watson came on hard times and sold out to
Kelsey. He was allowed to buy back his shop some years later, but on
terms that did not allow him to use his own name, which Kelsey now
Kelsey could be soft hearted towards children -- and adults -- who were
learning printing. A young man called S. E. Judson was working in the
Post Office in Washington D.C. when he found a Kelsey circular on the
dead letter table. Judson wanted to buy a press but couldn't afford it,
and wrote asking for special terms -- a loan of $10, in fact -- because, as
he said, a clerk with a family and a low rate of salary does not have
much margin. Across the letter, Kelsey wrote "Send."