Friday, July 6, 2018

Newspaperman and Printing Company President Harry Syms [otd 07/06]

Harry J. Syms, co-founder and President of the Syms-York Company was born July 6, 1866 in Aukland, New Zealand. After learning the printer's trade, he found employment in several South Pacific locations, including Australia, Fiji, and the Hawaiian Islands.
San Francisco, ca 1888. National Archives.

He came to the United States in 1888 and worked at a San Francisco newspaper. After a year there, Syms moved to Shoshone, Idaho, where he bought and operated the Shoshone Journal for five years.

In 1894, he sold the paper to a consortium of prominent county Republicans, who wanted to operate it as party mouthpiece. Harry later ran for office as a Republican himself, so it's not entirely clear why he did not retain an interest in the paper. He may have continued to run the paper for awhile because he remained in Shoshone until the spring of 1895. Syms then became City Editor for the Caldwell Tribune.

At the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, Syms enlisted in the First Idaho Regiment, where he became a 1st Lieutenant. He served with the unit in the Philippines, then returned to Boise City after his discharge in 1899. The following year, the Republican Party nominated Harry as a candidate for State Auditor. However, a coalition of Democrats and Silver Republicans won all the state offices that year. Syms never again ran for public office.

Around 1901, Harry moved again, to become the owner and operator of a newspaper in Mountain Home. After just a year there, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed him Register of the U. S. Land Office in Boise. He returned to the city to handle those duties.

Near the end of his appointment, in 1905, he became co-founder and President of the Syms-York Company. His partner, Lem A. York, had comparable experience in publishing and printing, including a stint with the Owhyee Avalanche newspaper.

They started with just two small presses crammed into a basement. However, by 1910 they occupied another location with considerable first floor and basement space, and a full range of equipment. The firm continued to grow and by 1920 had "the largest printing and binding establishment in the state of Idaho."
Printing press, ca 1905. Library of Congress.

The Syms-York Company printed the usual wide range of materials, including brochures, handbills, blank invoices, and so on. On several occasions from 1907 through 1919, they won the contract to print compilations of bills passed by the legislature, as well as various revisions of the Idaho Code of Laws.

The company also produced a fair number of books, although not always as the official publisher.Thus, A Romance of the Sawtooth (1917), reportedly the first novel published in Idaho, was produced by the author, but printed and bound by Syms-York.

They did publish John Hailey's History of Idaho (1910). And in 1914, Syms-York issued a limited edition of Journal of a Trapper by mountain man Osborne Russell [blog, Dec 20]. The demand for that account led the company to release an expanded version some years later. In a "Publisher's Note," Lem York said that Russell "was a great uncle of the writer of these explanatory notes."

In January 1920, because of poor health, Syms sold his interest in the firm and York became President and General Manager. Syms retired first to Redondo Beach, and then to Santa Monica, California. Finally, some time before 1930, he and his wife settled in Glendale. Harry passed away there in 1932 (Los Angeles Times; March 26, 1932).
References: [Hawley]
Jann G. Marson, "Platen Press Printing in Idaho," Idaho Center for the Book Newsletter, Boise State University (April 2000).
“News of the Printers,” The Pacific Printer and Publisher, Volume XXIII, No. 2, San Francisco, California (February 1920).
Osborne Russell, Aubrey L. Haines (ed.), Journal of a Trapper, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln (1965).
“[Syms News Items],” Idaho Statesman, Boise (March 1895 - January 1920).


  1. Nice Blog, thanks for sharing that was simply good
    Printing Companies

  2. I have a photo of Syms-York Publishing in Boise. Do you know anything else about the history of the company after Lem York took over? When did the company go out of business? How would I find out anything more?

  3. I have a photo of the company from around the 1930s. Do you know anything about them after Lem York took over? Thank you

  4. According to a paragraph of company history in the Marson reference, Syms-York was bought out in the mid-1980s by Joslyn & Morris. That's the only information I have.

  5. The blog was absolutely fantastic! Great job, keep it up.