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.


  1. It would be really cool to be able to go to these museums and they'd be working museums--how fun would that be? I'm sure you've done that before in your printing years.

  2. Actually there are some working museums, like Printer's Hall at Old Threshers Museum in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. Others are in private hands, and there are probably more I don't know about.