Commentary & Analysis
Back to the Futura: preserving printing’s past
The granddaddy of all printing museums is off a large square in the small Town of Mainz,
By Frank Romano
Published: February 29, 2008
The granddaddy of all printing museums is off a large square in the small Town of Mainz, Germany, in the shadow of the great Cathedral. The Gutenberg Museum has several Gutenberg Bibles, machinery, artifacts, and other attractions. It is, for printing afficionados, our own Mecca, if you will. The Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp is a shrine to the printing arts. It was both the home and the workplace of Christopher Plantin and generations of his family. There is no single American printing museum like Mainz or Antwerp, although, a few come close.
Printing came to America in 1607 with Steven Daye, a locksmith who wound up as a printer when his benefactor died en route. Over the next five centuries print grew to the third largest industry and its historic artifacts have been strewn across many states in many public and some private locations.
The product of those artifacts is still generally around because books and printed ephemera take up less space than old presses. Having an old press or type case in the lobby generates a sense of history and continuity. I cannot envision a future when someone places a laser printer or a Dell laptop in the lobby.
One of my most special evenings was at the home of J. Ben Lieberman in Tarrytown, NY. Ben Lieberman (1914-1984) was founder and first President of the American Printing History Association. You could not leave his house without setting type and printing a page on the hand press (in his living room) he acquired from Fred Goudy who had acquired it from the estate of William Morris. Ben rang a bell and said “Let freedom ring” because he believed passionately in freedom of the press—and that everyone should have a press. I signed the guest book that night right after Alfred Knopf.
We have lost our sense of history. When the Smithsonian closed the printing exhibit in 2003, with its wonderful collection of hand presses and the original Blower Linotype, few complained. In fact, no one complained. Better to exhibit Archie Bunker’s chair than the equipment that educated generations of Americans.
Fortunately a few regional locations have arisen to put the past on display and hopefully protect it from the junkman.
The International Printing Museum in Carson, California (just south of LA) retains a great collection. Its original location was perfect and it now suffers from some space limitations. But the California Department of Transportation had better ideas for the old building. Their small theaters bring in many students and they also visit schools to provide presentations.
The Museum of Printing History, Houston, Texas displays a wide range of presses and a collection of historic printed materials. It features a number of galleries and working demonstrations on various aspects of the graphic arts, including letterpress. There is a working replica of the Johann Gutenberg press, and visitors are able to print a leaf from the Gutenberg Bible.
The Museum of Printing in North Andover, Massachusetts has the largest collection of printing history. There are more phototypesetters than any other location, plus collections that are unrivaled — like the entire set of drawings for every Linotype hot metal typeface and the 100,000+ piece Frey Collection of ephemera from a century ago.
The Hamilton Wood Type Museum in Two Rivers, Wisconsin has the machinery and samples, making it the major repository of what is more than a splinter group in the history of an industry. It is a wonderful to experience the world of wood type.
Old(e) print shops abound: at Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, Old Sturbridge Village, Sturbridge, Massachusetts, and Old Mystic Seaport, Connecticut. There are many others where the art of hand printing is demonstrated amid the exclamations of wonder by the audience. Some actually think that is how we still print.
The Museum of Newport History, Newport, Rhode Island displays the printing press used by James Franklin (to whom Ben was apprenticed). Ben, a pre-teen at the time, ran the shop while James was in prison.
There are a few real Gutenbergian leaves around: the RIT Cary Collection has one as well as a small collection of hand presses. The Linotype company had such a leaf. One of my jobs was to take it in its green folder to showings in New York City in the 1960s, then take it home that night, and return it in the morning. I am the only person you know who has slept a few feet from a Gutenberg Bible page (other than Gutenberg, of course).
The Shakespeare Press Museum, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, California has regular classes on letterpress printing from a very large collection of wood and metal type. Students studying the newest technologies loved getting their fingers dirty with the oldest of technologies.
The Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vermont has the Ben Lane Printing Shop, a working exhibit with a variety of presses and other equipment. The Mackenzie Heritage Printery Museum, Queenston, Ontario, Canada has a whole building of artifacts, with a working linecaster.
The Chicago Museum of Science and Industry had a small printing exhibit at one time (funded by R.R. Donnelley). I loved the working Linotype Comet linecaster. You could put a nickel in a slot and it activated a paper tape loop that cast a slug with the Museum’s name. It is gone now but the U-505 submarine is still there.
Historical societies such as Chariton County Historical Society Museum, Salisbury, Missouri, Heritage Hill State Historical Park, Green Bay, Wisconsin, Kankakee County Historical Society Museum, Kankakee, Illinois, and the Lancaster Cultural History Museum, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, among many others have small displays of presses or type or historic posters/books, etc.
Many newspapers across America and Canada have exhibits of how they produced the paper in the rough and tumble days of hot metal. The Newseum in Lancaster, PA is a large window display that extends the better part of a city block of the way it was in newspaper production.
Working linecasters (Linotypes and Intertypes) are out here, held together by a small (space)band of practitioners who are aging by the day. We need to resurrect linecasting schools to assure a stream of operators.
The only existing Paige typesetter is in the new museum building adjacent to the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut. I was at Linotype when we were told to get rid of all the equipment in a wonderful exhibit on the first floor of 29 Ryerson Street, Brooklyn, New York. We found homes for much of it, but some sadly wound up as scrap metal. Fortunately, we found a home for Paige’s invention.
Hand press work is enjoying a renaissance as some museums are lending out some of their excess collection to a new generation of hobby printers. All those hand presses are still useable after a century or more. I cannot say the same for those old phototypesetters. If properly maintained, the mechanical devices could go on forever. Metal type could go on forever. And that would be good.
What will it take for the museums of printing (or any of the others) to survive? Money. Today, a small group of passionate individuals volunteer their time and dig deeply into their pockets. Giant companies have not been as forthcoming.
What are their prospects? Gloomy. Unless we can find larger sources of funding, most museums will shrink and die. The heritage of an entire industry will be gone.
Most of what was at the Smithsonian is now in deep storage and unaccessible.
What should curators be looking to save from the last two printing revolutions? Everything and anything. The machinery, type, and most of all, the manuals and specimen books should be saved.
I am sure that most readers agree that printing museums and other historic exhibitions are worth the effort. Even the smallest donations will help to keep them alive. When I see the many groups visit the Museum of Printing in Massachusetts, especially high schoolers, I see how they can be touched by printing’s past and then want to be a part of printing’s future.