S.C. Toof letterhead

S.C. Toof: A Memphis Institution

This article originally appeared in Volume I, Issue II of StoryBoard Memphis Quarterly in March 2022.

From its founding in 1864 to the present, Memphis-based printing company, Toof American Digital (originally Franklin Job Printing House, then S.C. Toof Co.), has produced and bound an astounding array of materials. These range from the 1887 Memphis Taxing District map to award-winning, hand-tooled books; from cigarette stamps to StoryBoard Memphis Quarterly.

Portrait of S.C. Toof
Image courtesy of Find a Grave

Stephen Cummings Toof founded the business in 1864. Born near Quebec in 1835, Toof immigrated to Iowa Territory with his family and became an apprentice printer at the Keokuk, Iowa Weekly Dispatch in 1850. He arrived in Memphis in 1852 to work as a printer on the Daily Eagle and Enquirer. Later, he became a press foreman at the Memphis Daily Appeal, until the 1862 Battle of Memphis. In order to continue publishing, the Confederate Appeal had to leave the city once it reverted to Union control. Toof was one of the men who deconstructed the printing press and loaded it onto the train cars that took it to Grenada, Mississippi, before the Union Navy arrived in the harbor. The historical record is unclear if Toof traveled with the press throughout its stops in various Confederate cities, but by 1864, he was back in Memphis and set up his own printing business on Court Street, between Main and Front.

On the evening of July 8, 1884, Toof was sitting in his office discussing affairs with a colleague when he smelled smoke and raised an early alarm. A fire had originated in the boiler room and followed the conveyor belt that ran up to the third story, badly damaging stock throughout the building. As damaging as the flames was the water used to put out the conflagration. The firm was back up and running the next day, but due to damage in the building, they moved to the Ayres block of Second Street.

The same year, the company hired Otto Zahn, a German bookbinder who worked in London before immigrating to the United States. Under his leadership, the company grew to become one of the most respected bookbinders in America. Zahn won the grand prize for bookbinding at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. In his review of art bindings for New York’s The Independent, editor W.G. Bowdoin noted that the interesting bindings found at the St. Louis Exposition, “were found worthy of occupying a space in the Fine Arts Building…That they were designed and bound in the Toof Bindery shows that among the firms of art binders in the United States none are more competent than they in the realm of art binding. They have no superior in the happiness of design and the perfection of finish of the books turned out by them.”  Zahn eventually became the company’s president in 1918, and was reportedly one of the city’s last businessmen to regularly ride a horse to work.

In 1912, the company added to the city’s streetscape with a new headquarters at 195 Madison Avenue. It was among the first buildings in Memphis to have Egyptian decorative ornamentation on its facade. In addition to administrative offices, the building housed manufacturing and warehousing operations. The National Register of Historic Places listed the building in 1982. The historic building was adapted in 2014 and rebranded as Pressbox Lofts, an apartment building that currently houses the Memphis Chess Club on the bottom floor.

The Toof family’s other addition to Memphis’s built environment was a farm to the south of town. The family commonly referred to the property as “Graceland,” named after Stephen’s daughter Grace who later inherited the land. She passed it to her niece Ruth Moore, who built the now-famous mansion that Elvis Presley later purchased.

Modern printing technology differs substantially from the Civil War era. Today, lithography, typesetting and manual bookbinding have given way to digital printing, machine cutting, and saddle stitching. Toof still uses offset printing to produce larger format publications, such as StoryBoard Memphis Quarterly; however, Stillman McFadden, the firm’s current owner, believes digital printing is the industry’s—and Toof’s—future. As technology changes, Toof American Digital will do as it always has: adapting and providing its worldwide customers with quality products, manufactured and distributed from Memphis.

Caroline Mitchell Carrico is a native Memphian and the Manager of Programs and Associate Editor at StoryBoard Memphis. A historian by training, she enjoys researching the city’s past and pulling it into the present. When she isn’t reading and writing, she can often be found cheering on her kids’ soccer teams.

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