Excerpted from the book Allen Press A Celebration of 75 Years.
The first 75 years of Allen Press history can be divided into four roughly equal periods: the early years of job-shop printing (1935–1951), the advent of scholarly journal printing led by Harold Allen (1952–1970),the expansion of journal printing and nonprofit society–based services led by Arly Allen (1971–1993), and the technology-driven period led by Rand Allen (1994–present). Throughout its history, Allen Press has focused on the quality of its printing and providing attentive service while adapting to changing customer needs. While the Allen family provided the entrepreneurial spirit that propelled the company from a one-man shop with handset lead type and a platen letterpress into an internationally recognized printer, publisher, and service provider to the magazine and journal industry, many talented managers and employees developed specialized and innovative technology, products, and services that enabled the company by 2010 to employ 300 people and serve more than 300 clients publishing more than 450 magazines and journals.
Allen Press was founded in 1935. Harold purchased Seewir Printing that year after working—without pay—at Seewir’s small print shop while studying at the University of Kansas (KU). During the 1930s and 1940s, the company remained a small letterpress commercial print shop, serving the local community. By the early 1950s, the company had become the largest commercial printer in Lawrence, with about 15 employees and a broad range of local customers. By 1946 the company had outgrown its original location in the basement of the First National Bank building at 8th and Massachusetts Streets (now Teller’s Restaurant), and built a larger plant near the corner of 11th and New Hampshire Streets on the outskirts of downtown Lawrence.
Left: Harold Allen, 1935. Middle: The first location of Allen Press at 8 E. 8th Street, Lawrence, Kansas, 1935. Right: Allen Press 11th and New Hampshire Street, 1946.
In 1952 Harold was approached by Dr. Harrison “Bud” Tordoff, a professor at KU, to bid on a scientific journal called The Wilson Bulletin. Tordoff referred Allen Press to other professors at KU, including E. Raymond Hall, then editor of the Journal of Mammalogy. They in turn referred the company to professors and editors at other universities, and the scientific journal aspect of Allen Press’ business began to grow.
Harold’s son Arly joined the company in the late 1960s. By that time, academic publications represented about 50% of Allen Press’ business, and the company staff numbered about 75. In the early 1970s, the company decided to focus its business entirely on academic publications and books and to shed the commercial printing operations.
Also in the 1960s, Allen Press discovered that many of its small society clients had service needs that went beyond simply typesetting, printing, binding, and mailing their publications. The company added back issue warehousing and fulfillment, as well as mailing list services. These services have been expanded over the years to include marketing, association management services, and executive director services.
In 1975 Allen Press had 21 linotype machines and 7 letterpresses manufactured by Heidelberg and Miller. The bindery consisted of curved wooden tables where women gathered printed signatures (16- or 32-page units) together by hand, and a stapling and gluing machine for the journal covers. Addressing was done by a machine that made an impression on manila envelopes from a metal plate, and the envelopes were then stuffed by hand and trucked to the post office.
Left: Linotype area, 1968. Middle: Arly Allen, 1990. Right: The Bindery, 1972.
In 1969 the time had come to purchase the company’s first offset press. Harold remained convinced until his death in 1987 of the superiority of letterpress to offset, even though offset printing and computerized typesetting had superseded the hot metal operation long before then. Printing 300-line screen black-and-white halftones by offset became the hallmark of Allen Press technology in the 1970s and 1980s, and led to the acquisition of many journals in fields such as medicine, veterinary science, paleontology, botany, and other natural sciences, as well as several noted museum publications.
Around the same time, computerized phototypesetting supplanted the linotypes for putting the manuscripts into journal pages. Proofreading was done by women reading in pairs in a cigarette smoke–filled room located above the pressroom.
Left: Jim Pusch and Miller Press, early 1980s. Middle: John Van Nice in the Photocomposition Department, 1978. Right: Proofroom, 1978.
In the 1970s Allen Press competed with 10 or more companies specializing in journals. Despite being much smaller than its competitors, Allen Press was able to add a large number of journal clients, mainly through customer referrals during the 1970s and 1980s, without mounting a formal sales effort. Until the mid-1990s the company had no commissioned sales force and was able to grow largely due to the emphasis on quality and high level of customer service provided by the staff.
In 1986 the company had once again outgrown its facilities and found itself landlocked in downtown Lawrence. A former pork-and-bean canning facility containing about 150,000 square feet of space was purchased, and since then has been renovated to house all Allen Press operations.
In the mid-1990s Allen Press management, under the direction of current owner Rand Allen foresaw correctly that the Internet would have a major impact on the scholarly journal printing business. Although the company had added many services beyond typesetting, printing, and binding over the years, manufacturing remained the chief revenue and profit center of the business. The convenience of being able to find and download scientific information at one’s desktop was too compelling to believe that journals would continue to be printed, at least in the same volume, as we entered the 21st century. In response to the challenges posed by Internet technology, Allen Press employed three parallel strategies. First, we became Internet service providers ourselves, developing a robust online publishing capability, now with more than 200 journals currently hosted as full text online. Second, we became a journal publisher (as opposed to printer), whereby we provide the financial management, editing, marketing, advertising sales, renewals management, and other publishing services for about 30 journal titles. Finally, we installed a four-color web offset printing press that is geared to produce small magazines with press runs ranging from 10,000 to as many as 100,000 copies, along with bindery and mailing equipment also capable of handling the larger press runs.
Allen Press has remained a leader in adopting advanced printing technologies. The company was the first to install waterless web offset printing and was an early adopter of “computer-to-plate” technology whereby an intermediate step of making film is bypassed. A highly automated binding line was added in response to the growth of larger circulation magazine printing. Mailing capabilities using ink jetting and copalletization offer customers mailing efficiency and cost savings.
Left: Harris, 4-color web press utilizing computer-to-plate technology. Middle: Lyle Bowlin and Lisa Mayhew check a signature for alignment and overall quality, 2009. Right: Allen Press, 810 E 10th Street, 2010.
Allen Press is now recognized as one of the top three or four journal and magazine printers serving a specialized market niche where quality and service are paramount. The company still adheres to the same traditions initiated by Harold and is proud of a long history of technological advancement. Managers and staff at Allen Press believe that the company is positioned to continue to meet the changing needs of its clients in the 21st century.
Written by Guy Dresser, retired Allen Press Vice President. Guy graduated from the University of Kansas with a Bachelor of Arts in English and Philosophy. He began working at Allen Press in 1972 and retired in 2008. Not only having built his career at Allen Press, but also a son-in-law to Harold Allen, Guy offers a unique perspective of the history of Allen Press.