modern adventures in printing

In keeping with the spirit of my last couple of posts, this one is also about printing, but this time as an activity that my students and I did in our Books and Early Modern Culture seminar. The Folger is lucky to have a small-scale replica hand press, thanks to the resourcefulness of Steve Galbraith, our former Curator of Books, who tracked down the work of a group of engineering students from Bucknell who had designed and built the press for a senior project, and who then built a second one for us. The Library’s used the press as part of exhibits, in demonstrations for Shakespeare’s Birthday celebration, and with students. Usually there’s only time for students to set their names in type and to print off a single broadside. But this time, I decided that there was room in the syllabus to try a bigger experiment: choosing a text, setting the type in a single-sheet folio format, and printing it off. My hope was that setting type in a multi-page format would drive home the sort of decisions that printers needed to make and the factors that could affect what a printed work looks like.  

students discuss the text they're going to set, working off an iPad

Our first session was devoted to setting the outer forme—that is, the first and last pages of our booklet. Since we hadn’t settled on a text yet (and since this was my first time working with the press in a folio format, we weren’t sure yet of how much room for text we actually had!), we decided to set the first as a title page and the last as a colophon. With that decision out of the way, we moved on to poring over the type case to find the right letters, putting them in the composing stick, and then carefully transferring the type to the chase. (Keen printing afficiandos will notice that our set-up is slightly different from a Renaissance press: a Renaissance printer would have set his page on a wooden tray, or galley, and then locked the type into place by tying it up and transferring it to the chase where wooden furniture and quoins would squeeze all the little parts into a solid mass. Ours has a wooden frame that serves as both galley and chase. I should also point out that early type cases—the box that holds the pieces of type—were not laid out the same way they are today: an early London printer would be working from two cases–an upper case, which held majuscule letters, and a lower case, which held miniscules. ((And now you know why upper case letters are called upper case and lower case letters called lower case!))  Most letterpresses today work from a California job case, which keeps all the type in one case; our case is a modified version of a California. If you want to explore handpress printing from this era  in greater detail, try The Printer’s Devil Project from the University of Western Ontario, which has great explanations and illustrations building on Joseph Moxon’s classic 1683 account in Mechanick Exercises.)

type case
laying out the outer forme (click to enlarge)

If you look at the picture above, you’ll see one student working with the composing stick in the upper right corner, another student having just placed type in the chase and about to adjust the leading between lines, and on the left a pair of tweezers that can be used to pick out errant type (an early printer would have used a bodkin for this chore). Below is the outer forme that we printed after these pages were finally set:

the printed outer forme (click to enlarge)

Can you spot the two errors? One is pretty small: the “l” in “Charles” has been set upside down and so descends rather than ascends. The other error is much larger, but was harder for us to spot. ((You might think it’s the date, but it’s not: this is the 4th year of the 44th President. It’s a little early modern regnal year joke.))

The pages are backwards! What should be the last page (the colophon with all the printers’ names) is on the right-hand side of the sheet, so that when the booklet is folded, it will end up on top, and the title page will end up on the bottom. Ooops! I’m not sure how we all missed that. We’d even talked about which side of the chase would hold the first page and which the last page. As far as I can reconstruct, we made the silly error of having that discussion while standing on one side of the table but then, when we stood on the other side of the table to set the type, didn’t reconceptualize which side was which. (And that would be why terms like “stage right” are so crucial!)

When we reconvened for our second session, and discovered our mistake, we carefully labeled the chase to avoid making the same error again.

type set (but not locked) for the inner forme (click to enlarge)

One lesson we took from this is how detail-oriented you need to be. It’s not like this was news to us, but experiencing it first-hand makes a world of difference. Having to make decisions about casting off (determining how much text will go on each page), setting type, what to do when you run low on a sort, ((If you look closely at the photo, you’ll see that as we got near the end of our text we ran out of t’s, h’s, and a few other letters, and so had to resort to some odd spellings, an occasional word change, and the use of uppercase letters for lowercase ones.)) and how to lay out your pages meant that we had to work through the exact process of printing rather than rely on a generalized understanding of what would have happened. It became practice, not theory. What you might not see in these photos is how much fun it was, too. It took up a lot of class time, but it was a learning experience that we couldn’t have had any other way.

So here’s to errors and to minding your p’s and q’s!

transferring type from stick to the correct side of the chase

Very important acknowledgments: None of this would have happened without the enthusiasm of the students, who were willing to try something none of us were sure was going to work. All the printing expertise came from the invaluable help and advice of Annie Immediata and Mike Poston. And it never would have been possible if Steve Galbraith hadn’t gotten the press and type for the Folger, so many thanks to him for making this happen and for recording its action for posterity: