Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Mark Twain, Printer

This November 30th marks the 175th anniversary of the birth of Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain. Why is Mark Twain so beloved by letterpress printers? First of all, because he was a printer. He learned the trade working for his brother Orion at the Hannibal Journal in Missouri, then wandered around the east coast as a itinerant typesetter. He became a steamboat pilot for awhile, but when the Civil War forced him off the river he took off for Nevada Territory. There he ended up working for a newspaper called The Territorial Enterprise. Serving as a typesetter, printer, reporter, and sometimes author, he honed his talent for comedic writing.

Newspaper printers in those days were of necessity writers. With every column, advertisement, and article in the newspaper set by hand, one letter and space at a time, there was often a need to fill empty space with articles written at the last minute. A fascinating book I read recently, “Lighting Out For the Territory: How Samuel Clemens Headed West and Became Mark Twain” (by Roy Morris, Jr., Simon & Schuster, 2010) tells how young Sam Clemens used the Enterprise’s need for newspaper copy to get his early stories published. By the time “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” had made him a well-known writer, Twain’s ability to write comedy was fine-tuned from his printing days.

Another reason letterpress printers love Mark Twain: he wrote some of the best quotes for printing that you can imagine! Here are just a few examples: “Do not put off till tomorrow what can be put off till day-after-tomorrow just as well.” “Few of us can stand prosperity. Another man’s, I mean.” “Good breeding consists in concealing how much we think of ourselves and how little we think of the other person.” “ It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.” “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence in society.” “I haven’t a particle of confidence in a man who has no redeeming petty vices.” When in doubt what to print, you can always whip out a Twain quote and be assured of an appreciative audience.

Finally, many printers delight in Twain’s nonconformity, his distinctive sense of self. Twain loved to poke fun at the foibles of the human race. Using humor, he was able to get away with saying things he couldn’t have with a straight face. It’s instructive and fun to see how Twain was able to express himself and be a free thinker without antagonizing his audience. Most letterpress printers by nature are strong individuals and believers in freedom of the press, so Twain’s character resonates with them.

So... Happy 175th Birthday Mark Twain, wherever you are! As a would-be author, I admire and appreciate your work. And as I plug away setting type, I’ll think of you building your literary career in the print shop, one letter and space at a time.

Two miniature books featuring early writings of Mark Twain, printed and bound by the Scottfree Press.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Favorite Victorian Typefaces

The printed invitation at the top of this blog shows a few of my favorite 19th century type faces from our shop. “St. Louis Letterpress Society presents” is printed in Camelot Oldstyle, an early Goudy face. Between the pointing fingers, or “fists” as printers call them, is French Clarendon from the Johnson Type Foundry. “Really, truly, ugly” is printed in Scribner, a Central Type Foundry typeface that wanders all over the place. “Nineteenth” is Old Style Bold from Central Type Foundry; “Century” is Vanity Fair; and “Typefaces” is Gold Rush. The small type describing the talk is Drexel from the Keystone Foundry. The date is printed in Grant from Barnhart Brothers and Spindler, and the address is in Jim Crow. “Webster Groves” is Title Text Open from Johnson; “5:00 P.M.” is Thunderbird from the Phoenix Type Foundry ; and “Potluck Dinner” is Vertical Script. The remaining text is Devinne, and the border at the bottom was rescued from an old print shop in Marthasville, Missouri that went through a major flood.

Bizarre, florid, garish — these are just a few ways to describe Victorian advertising typefaces. Like furniture and home furnishings of the time, they were fussy and highly decorative. I like their curlicues and squiggles, their lack of subtlety. Every one is different. They’re like extroverts, each one shouting, “Look at me!”

Printers didn’t use type subtly in that era, either. Instead they printed line after line of eccentric typefaces, one after another, showing off as many different fonts from their print shops as possible. The effect was attention-getting, to say the least. Of course that’s just what the advertiser wanted to do to sell merchandise.

My husband and I have been fortunate enough to collect a number of these fascinating old typefaces and use them in our printing. They’re fun to work with, and I love seeing the imaginative ways their designers interpreted the alphabet!

A similar announcement with a circus clown has a variety of old Victorian type faces in it. “Ladies and Gentlemen” is printed in Circus; “Your Attention Please” is a Smithsonian recasting called Ornamented; “Is your ticket to” is French Antique Extended; “A Grand Compendium of Typographical Expression” is Grant; “Available Only to Those Bold Enough to Participate” is French Old Style; and the small type at the bottom is Drexel.

The piece on mowing machines features Arboret, another favorite Victorian typeface of mine. Designed by MacKellar, Smiths and Jordan Type Foundry to look like leaves decorating letters of the alphabet, it dates from about 1884. The old mowing machine cut was found on EBay.

Two older typefaces in our collection I appreciate are Black Ray Shaded and Black Open. Both were produced by the Bruce Type Foundry — Black Ray Shaded about 1870, and Black Open about 1882. Their formality suggests usage in wedding invitations, formal announcements, church literature, and the like.

A less ornate typeface, but still one of my favorites is St. John, designed by the Inland Type Foundry close to the end of the 19th century in 1895. It has an art nouveau flair to it, like other type faces that would follow it in the early 20th century.

Sadly, many of the older Victorian type faces were melted down in the 20th century after they were no longer fashionable. That makes those that survived that much more desirable to acquire. They represent “a grand compendium of typographical expression” indeed!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Demonstrating Letterpress

Part of the fun of being a letterpress printer is being able to demonstrate the printing process. People are invariably fascinated. Young and old, sophisticated or not, everybody loves to pull a proof on an old-time press and to be able to say, “I printed this!”

Opportunities to demonstrate letterpress are everywhere, not just limited to historic sites, though they’re most frequent there. Some places make printing demonstrations easy; others present challenges. One historic site where I volunteered years ago made it pretty tough to fulfill my letterpress demo passion. Ever try printing on a 9x12 platen job press sitting on a wheeled dolly that creeps away from you, while wearing a long pioneer style dress? Interesting to say the least. This site had no type, ink, quoins, chases, gauge pins, or paper – I brought in my own. There was also no running water in the house where I was demonstrating, so when I was done I hauled the inky form home.

Never mind – I had fun demonstrating anyway! It was amazing how excited people would get when I turned the flywheel of the press and pulled out a freshly printed piece. Some stayed to watch the process over and over again. I had big wood type for kids to handle and a composing stick to show how type was set. I explained minding your p’s and q’s and making a good impression (see my earlier blog, “Upper Case, Lower Case”).

Kids absolutely love letterpress printing. Once my husband and I demonstrated at the Mark Twain Museum in Hannibal, Missouri and ended up with a long line of kids waiting to print. They were interested enough to be pretty patient until their turn came. And it was great seeing the excitement on their faces when they got to set their name in type and pull an impression on a little tabletop press.

Fascination with letterpress printing isn’t limited to kids, though – far from it. A few years back, my husband and I demonstrated printing on a steamboat cruising the Mississippi River as part of an American Bibliographic Society Convention in St. Louis.

Setting up was challenging. My husband hauled our 5x7 Baltimorean press and gear in his arms across the rugged cobblestones of the St. Louis riverfront. You don’t realize how heavy a little printing press is until you’ve carried it! Once inside the steamboat, we were given a small table to set up. We soon discovered the table wasn’t very stable. With every impression of the Baltimorean, it wobbled. We wondered if this distinguished group of scholars and rare book librarians from major museums and universities would be interested in printing our souvenir bookmark under these conditions.

But it didn’t matter at all – people lined up, watched the process eagerly, and were absolutely thrilled to print their own bookmark. Many said it was one of the highlights of the convention for them to actually print something themselves.
So one more great thing about letterpress is sharing it. I think everybody should get a chance to say, “I printed this!” at least once.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Stepping Back In Time

Sometimes when I tour a historic print shop, I get the feeling of stepping back in time. The place looks ready for action, with alleys of case stands and lines of presses. Type cases are pulled out, with composing sticks set on top of them. I smell the familiar odors of ink, oil, and type wash. It feels like the old printers went to lunch and will be back any minute now.

State Capital Publishing, which my husband and I toured during the 2007 Oklahoma City Wayzgoose, is now a museum. Located in Guthrie, the former capital of Oklahoma, the building dates from 1902. This was once the official printing office of Oklahoma territory and home of its main newspaper, The Capital.

The main level of the old building is museum-like, with display cases, shelves for finished printing jobs, and an old fashioned teller cage. But going downstairs into the print shop, you get the eerie feeling that the presses were running this morning. Jobs that were being printed are easy to spot as forms on top of case stands. Ink and paper sit on shelves, available at a moment’s notice. A big line of Chandler and Price platen presses and a huge cylinder press stand ready for action, with mannequins adding to the sense of their being used now. It’s like entering a time warp of about a hundred years.

Years before when the printing equipment of S.G. Adams, an old St. Louis firm, was for sale, I experienced the same thing. My husband and I took the freight elevator to the 5th floor and stepped out into a world a century old. The shop was abandoned, but looked like it was still in use. There sat the lines of case stands, newspaper turtles, racks of leads and slugs, and shelves of paper. The foreman’s office stood open, and I kept wondering if he and the other compositors would be showing up soon.

S.G. Adams building of St. Louis in its heyday.

Everything was for sale at S.G. Adams, and inexpensively, too. The type cases were already sold, but all of the type was available. We had to dump the type into plastic bags, hoping the more delicate kerned fonts would survive the rough treatment. We picked up several antique faces including Clipper Condensed and Victoria Italic for fifty cents a pound, a price that made us feel like thieves. There was wood type for sale, too. We casually asked the price, thinking it would be sky high. Fifty cents a pound! It was like buying a piece of history for a song, and I hoped the old printers wouldn’t object.

Most museum print shops are of necessity surrounded by wooden gates and velvet ropes. Sometimes presses are being demonstrated, sometimes not. My husband and I study the details, standing there as tour group after tour group passes through. Often we end up chatting with the printer, and sometimes being invited behind the scenes. But that incredible “time warp” feeling comes only when we get to wander freely through an old print shop that looks like it was in use yesterday. Then we get that thrilling sensation of a step back in time into the past of letterpress – something every printer should experience at least once in a lifetime.