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.


  1. There seems to be a lot of kind folks in the world of letterpress. How lucky you were to have experienced such things. I love the idea of having your own little printing press.

  2. Ben's Stanford PhD Thesis, "Freedom of the Press" prompted him to invent the miniature press described in Carole's wonderful piece. To Ben, F of the P meant the freedom to actually own a press and print ones thoughts. The press was of high quality, contrasting with the only small press then commercially available, used by the Boy Scouts to earn the printing merit badge. The boy scout version used rubber type and produced documents of poor quality.

    While in graduate school, and perhaps after, Ben was the night city editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, where he developed friendships with noted columnists Stanton Delaplane and Charles McCabe among others.

    In White Plains Ben worked for General Foods, a job which he abandoned about 1965 to pursue multiple interests in printing, music and his "generic theory." Ben was a generalist in the age of the specialist. The UN became interested in dropping his small press into underdeveloped countries in Africa, and Ben had many friends at the UN promoting this idea. Hoping to finance his various ventures and adventures, Ben formed the "Popular Printing" Company about the time he published "Printing as a Hobby." Not surprising, the company never gained traction, and Ben returned to work as VP of Hill and Knowlton in New York.

    His 10th-floor apartment/home in West New York NJ had a fabulous view of Manhattan and was home for several years to the massive K/G press that Carole describes. So great was his interest in letterpress that the family cat's name was Etaoin Shrdlu, the lino-type equivalent of "qwerty." Ben (never J. Ben) counted Isaac Isamov among his good friends.

    Ben was an accomplished songwriter but sadly without an accomplishment. His musical play, destined for Broadway, never went past the small theater in White Plains. Ben had a great sense of humor and was wonderful to all of his family. I was married to his daughter in 1967 for 9 years. Our wedding gift was, you guessed it, a printing press, a 1920's Price and Chandler, which I still own.

    Elizabeth was a kind, wonderful person. In addition to compiling and publishing the Check Log for many years, she worked as a proof reader for a well-known publisher maybe Alfred Knopf.

    To accommodate is expanding library and the K/G press itself, Ben returned to Westchester County to New Rochelle and a much larger home. He died in mid 1980's.

    Bill Haddon
    Talleyrand Winery
    Kelseyville CA 95451

  3. Thank you, Bill, for the additional information on Ben Lieberman. It sounds like you knew him well. He was a wonderful person and made such a contribution to the private press movement in the United States. I feel privileged to have known him.

  4. Carole, what fun to stumble upon your lovely essay!

    I grew up in New York, and my father met Ben through business shortly after the war. The Liebermans became close family friends. Every Christmas season we visited them in White Plains, and Ben would park my sister and me at our own small presses, and let us crank out bookmarks, bookplates, and stationery until our arms got tired.

    On what must have been my twelfth birthday, A package arrived from Ben; an inscribed "Printing as a Hobby," as well as one of his small presses (with lead type). I confess I didn't play with it much since the junior high school I had just entered had an excellent graphic arts shop, so I gravitated toward the "real" presses.

    My parents were in attendance the night of the big party welcoming the K/G Press to White Plains, and I thought you and your readers might enjoy seeing some memorabilia from that event:

    Oh, and Bill, if you're reading this, yes, Elizabeth worked for Knopff, and he was there that night, too.

    I know Jethro went on to become a respected Constitutional scholar and educator. I don't know what became of Lina. My father died in '67, and we lost touch with Liebermans not long after my mother moved to Phoenix in '70.

    Thanks again for the stroll down memory lane, and for motivating me to find that old file!

  5. Richard:
    >I don't know what became of Lina.
    She and I married in 1967 and were divorced in 1976. Lina (now Sarah) lives in Marin County CA.

  6. Richard, the flickr page that you reference is marked private and can't be referenced.

    Bill Haddon
    Kelseyville CA

    "My parents were in attendance the night of the big party welcoming the K/G Press to White Plains, and I thought you and your readers might enjoy seeing some memorabilia from that event: "