Printing Museums — Old World Craft Lives On
THERE IS a certain romantic element connected to printing. The dewy eyes are primarily reserved for old school printing, the lead type and letterpress, as opposed to modern presses that can spout out tens of thousands of copies in an hour. That’s ultra-modern production, efficient but not enough to make your heart flutter.
Sure, there’s nothing wrong with being fast and accurate; it surely pays the bills. But old-fashioned printing harkens us to the days of face-to-face interaction, first-name basis recognition, the brick-and-mortar shop down the street, next to the other local businesses owned by people with whom you golf and attend the same church. In hindsight, this way of life seems idealistic, but from up close, this Dickens or Rockwell-esque painting likely had its share of flaws.
But the great thing about memories is our ability to filter out everything but those most pleasant recollections that cause us to regard the olden days with high regard. That love we hold for old time printing stems from its status as a craft, in stark opposition to today’s science of ink (or toner) on paper.
And that love has produced a collection of printing museums from coast to coast that pay homage to a former way of doing business.
Take the Historical Tour
The hands-on approach comes closer to leaving a human fingerprint than any large web or sheetfed press on the market today. And, in an era where we are excited about equipment promises of “less human intervention,” these museums tip their hat to the period of maximum operator interaction. Not to mention fun.
Our first stop on the museum tour is a little farm on the Delaware River in New Jersey. The obscure Frenchtown, NJ, plays host to The Excelsior Press Museum & Print Shop. You can look all day and not find a velvet rope for visitors. It’s not likely on any museum registry. In fact, the shop is a mess; the old gear there needs to be straightened out and cleaned. The lead cases need to be cleaned and the wood oiled. Actually, it looks more like a mechanic’s garage.
In other words, this sounds like a really fun place as opposed to a stuffy old display behind glass. Alan Runfeldt, owner of the shop, was in the middle of moving (his home, not the shop) and admits that the The Excelsior Museum is in quite disarray. But it’s an actual, living, breathing job shop. He also loves to trade and sell presses and related gear.
“I just packed up a press to send to Austria,” he says. “People drive for hours to come here and buy a press. They know presses can get damaged when shipped, so they take them home themselves. Letterpress has become very popular again.”
In addition to running jobs, Runfeldt restores the equipment that he moves on to other letterpress aficionados, from Excelsior platens to Chandler & Price platens and Vandercook & Challenge proof presses. Runfeldt named his shop, naturally, after the press line and well before the Internet age, so he couldn’t have foreseen the number of calls and e-mails he’d received from people thinking his shop is the official Excelsior company.
Similarly, when we think of Hawaii, we think of sun-splashed skies, leis, hula dancers and Don Ho. Printing is pretty far down the list in any word association game. But printing has its place in the 50th state’s history. In Lahaina, situated on the Lahainaluna Campus is the Hale Pa’i—the house of printing. It was restored in 1983 after falling into disrepair over a 20-year period.
Missionaries who came to Lahaina in 1823 stressed to Hawaiian Royalty the importance of an educational institution; eight years later, the Lahainaluna Seminary emerged (it’s now the city’s public high school). The Hale Pa’i was borne from the seminary. A Ramage press was installed in 1834 and students were taught how to set type and operate the press.
That press is said to have produced the first newspaper west of the Rocky Mountains that same year, a four-page weekly news-paper called Ka Lama Hawaii.
Despite becoming dry rotted and termite infested, citizens of Lahaina lobbied to have the Hale Pa’i restored. The building enjoys quite a bucolic setting.
For those of you who enjoy a more formal museum experience, it’s hard to top the Museum of Printing History in Houston. This polished institution boasts a diverse collection of historical documents and fine art prints, as well as antique printing equipment. But it’s not just stoic displays; traditional processes such as stone lithography, letterpress printing, paper making and bookbinding are demonstrated in working studios.
The museum’s Vernon P. Hearn Printmaker’s shop plays host to two 1830s star wheel stone litho presses, a 20th century proof press and a 19th century engraving press. Among its most prized presses are an Albion from around 1820 and a Columbian press, circa 1850.
During tours, guests take part in the printing of a leaf of the Gutenberg Bible pulled from a period press. Workshop visitors can view demonstrations, as well as attend classes for lithography, letterpress printing, binding and paper making.
Also set in a plush, green setting is the Museum of Printing in North Andover, MA. Its expansive collection features most types of letterpresses—platen and cylinder—from the 19th and 20th centuries. It also boasts various other printing technologies, including etching/gravure and offset lithography.
The museum not only displays one of the most comprehensive collections of presses (of which there are more than 50), but also a staggering array of support equipment, including typographical saws and hand miters. Other gear addresses makeup and correction, photography and plate making, along with bindery, mailing and material handling equipment.
The Shakespeare Press Museum is located within Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (CA) and includes more than 500 fonts of handset type. It prints holiday greeting cards, wedding invitations, bookmarks, posters and other various projects. It is geared toward student education, but is open to the public.
The RIT Collection
The Cary Collection graphic arts library and digital image database is maintained at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in Rochester, NY. While boasting an array of printed product with historical significance, the Cary Collection also has its share of printing equipment.
The Arthur M. Lowenthal Memorial Room at RIT houses letterpress equipment and a type composition workshop. Among the hardware: A Columbian hand press from 1876; an 1850s vintage Taylor Washington press; a Model 3 platen press from J.W. Daughaday & Co.; and an Albion press from London-based Salisbury. Of more recent vintage (1960s) is an original Heidelberg Windmill platen press.
A number of printing and publishing companies play host to museums, including Santa Rosa Printing in Santa Rosa, CA. Other museums include the State Capital Publishing Museum in Guthrie, TX; the Platen Press Museum in Zion, IL; the Living Museum of Letterpress in Seattle; and the Crandall Historical Printing Museum in Provo, UT.
With so many options across the country, try to take some time this summer to enjoy a chunk of printing history. It’s an opportunity to share with your family the love of a craft they might not understand, but will appreciate. PI