Wednesday, February 23, 2011
J. Ben Lieberman and the Kelmscott/Goudy Press
I first met J. Ben Lieberman on a family vacation trip to White Plains, New York in the mid-1960s. By this time he and his wife Elizabeth were deeply involved in the world of letterpress printing. They were warm and hospitable hosts, happy to welcome yet another hobby printer (my father Gary Hantke) and his family into their home.
The thing I remember most about J. Ben Lieberman was that he was a fount of enthusiasm and energy. A tireless promoter of letterpress, he was intrigued by the idea of it being affordable for anyone interested. So he invented the “Liberty Press”, a small tympan-pack tabletop model that could easily be built and used in a limited space, and wrote about it in his book, “Printing As A Hobby”. Later he would publish another highly useful book, “Types of Typefaces”, still a fine basic for anyone’s printing library.
At the time we visited White Plains, J. Ben had recently acquired the historic Kelmscott/Goudy press. This iron hand press had been owned first by the famous printer and designer William Morris, who was instrumental in the Craftsman movement of the late 19th century, and then by the eminent type designer Frederic Goudy. Even though I was young, I was familiar enough with the names William Morris and Frederic Goudy to know that I was looking at the Holy Grail of printing presses. I was even more awed when J. Ben invited our entire family to print bookmarks on it.
For those not familiar with iron hand presses, they are massive. They also require strength and manual dexterity to operate. First, the form of type needs to be evenly inked with a roller. Then paper is attached to a tympan, which is like a frame that can fold flat, holding the paper just above the freshly inked type. Together, the type and the tympan with the paper are cranked under the main body of the press. To make an impression, the printer pulls a heavy bar to squeeze the paper against the type. The bed of the press is then cranked back out again, the tympan unfolded, and you have your freshly printed piece inside. (See picture of a similar iron hand press below.)
Even though my sister and I were kids, J. Ben was perfectly willing to let us pull an impression on this priceless old press. He patiently explained just what to do and how to do it safely. What a thrill when I took out my own personalized bookmark, printed on the actual press William Morris and Frederic Goudy had used!
I had no trouble printing my bookmark, but my little sister was too short to reach across the press to pull the bar on the press. And she wanted to! So J. Ben picked her up by the waist and lifted her so she could grab the bar and print a bookmark, too.
Today the late J. Ben Lieberman is regarded as a key figure in the modern private press movement in the United States, starting the American Printing History Association, popularizing the idea of chappel gatherings of printers, originating the proprietor’s or “prop” card, and maintaining a checklist of private press names. An extensive collection of papers from his Herity Press is housed at the University of Delaware. But when I remember J. Ben Lieberman, I think of that kind and encouraging man who held my little sister up so she could print on the Kelmscott/Goudy Press.