Stevenson, John (1850–1931), printer, inventor, antiquary, and author, was born in Rostrevor, Co. Down, in 1850, eldest among three to five sons of John Stevenson (d. 1881) and Harriet Stevenson (née Walsh; d. 1891). One brother died in childhood and one as a young man; there may have been one or two other brothers. His parents moved to Belfast, where the father became a book-keeper in the Linfield Mill, and the boy was educated at RBAI. While still very young, in 1871, he set up in business in Belfast as a printer; his first partnership was dissolved after a few years, and in April 1876 he joined Alexander McCaw (d. 1878) and James Porter Orr in a partnership. The firm, known as McCaw, Stevenson & Orr, prospered and expanded into larger premises in Linenhall St.; much of the success of the Linenhall Works was based on products developed by Stevenson. He patented several inventions; in 1880, he took out a patent for coloured transparent window decorations with the trademark ‘Glacier’. These were used as shop window advertisements by businesses worldwide. The Belfast firm had agencies in Canada, Australia, the US, Chile, Argentina, Germany, France, and the Philippines, and the transparencies were sold in millions. Later, the company's artists provided larger designs in imitation of stained glass (but much cheaper) for houses and churches; these were also very successful products, and McCaw, Stevenson & Orr won many medals in international exhibitions throughout the 1880s. They were also noted for printing packaging materials for the linen goods for which Ulster firms were famous, and for many other products that were household names in their day; for instance, from 1904, all Meccano toys and most Hornby train sets were sold in packages printed in Belfast.
In the late 1880s the company (which became a limited liability company with three directors in 1889) looked for still larger premises, and planned a model factory surrounded by workers' houses on a site on the Stranmillis Road. A street of housing, Ridgeway St., was laid out, but the factory was not built. Instead, a former linen mill at Loop Bridge on the Castlereagh Road was converted into printworks where over 800 workers were employed from 1894; in 1896 the name was changed to the Linenhall works. Expansion continued, and Stevenson was able in 1900 to buy the assets of the long established and internationally famous printers Marcus Ward & Co. Ltd, when disagreements between the sons of Marcus Ward (qv) led to that company's liquidation. Marcus Ward's specialities fitted equally well into the activities of McCaw, Stevenson & Orr, and profits rose till the first world war brought a drop in demand for most of the company's products.
The exception was another product invented by Stevenson: Seccotine glue, known worldwide, and so familiar that its name was almost a generic term for glue and was even used as a verb and in metaphorical contexts; it was used by Short Brothers, then based in England, for making the canvas and wood aeroplanes of the era. Stevenson's patents included one in 1908 for the mode of opening and reclosing a glue tube with one pin, a technique widely used for many products since.
As well as his business, his inventions, and the contributions to public life that were expected of someone in his position (for many years he was chairman of the board of the Ulster Hospital and clerk of session in Fisherwick presbyterian church), Stevenson somehow found time for research interests in local history and for literary work. He is probably best remembered for his Two centuries of life in Down, which first appeared in 1920 and again in 2000; it is a scholarly but very readable social history based on a wide variety of manuscript and published material. Other historical works of some importance include a translation of a work by the chevalier de la Tocnaye, A Frenchman's walk through Ireland 1796–7, which Stevenson published himself in 1917, and the autobiographical A boy in the country (1912), which recorded the passing of a rural way of life in Ulster. Pat McCarty, farmer, of Antrim. His rhymes (1903 and 1905), though now not much read, was once popular. Stevenson also provided the introductory chapter to a history of his old school. For his literary work he was awarded an honorary MA by QUB in 1926. He died on 29 May 1931 at his house, Coolavin, on the Malone Road in Belfast.
Stevenson and his wife Catherine (née Ross; date of marriage unknown), who survived him, had one son, Leslie Stevenson (1885–1957), who was chairman of the company till his death; it was in existence in 2005, known as MSO, but no longer a family concern.