Old Press Finds New Space, Use

Daily Pennsylvanian
University of Pennsylvania

At a university where wireless Internet and flat-screen TVs abound, a 19th-century printing press may not seem the most likely technological addition.

But a team — representing the Fine Arts Department, the Kelly Writers House and Van Pelt Library — is almost finished assembling a functioning vintage printing shop for the Design School.

In late September, the University acquired two electric Vandercook proofing presses, from the 1950s and 1960s, and an antique Hoe and Washington hand press from the 1840s.

Total costs were about $22,500.

“What we’re hoping to do with this is re-materialize,” said David Comberg, a PennDesign lecturer, “to give [printing] some kind of physicality.”

Unlike modern click-of-a-button technology, the printing-press process is complicated, both physically and mentally.

First, letters cut into stamp-like blocks of wood or lead, called type, are arranged in trays according to the text to be printed. They are inked by hand, loaded into the machine and then pressed onto the sheet of paper. On the Hoe and Washington, this is done manually, with a strong turn of the press’ crank.

Previously, the Vandercooks were used for test prints of books and posters. Comberg, who helped initiate the project, said that the Hoe and Washington likely printed posters for Civil War recruiters, theaters and political and news events.

Each of the three groups involved in the project has an interest in the vintage presses.

For the Writers House, the presses mean a level of creation and authenticity lost in modern publication methods.

“When we massively reproduce text through Kinkos or [high-tech] presses, we are alienated from part of the material labor that we put into creating a text,” said Al Filreis, director of the Writers House. “A writer these days has a relationship to the text that’s fairly abstract.”

Filreis will head a publication team of about 30 Penn students and faculty known as the 15th Room Press. The team will use the presses for projects likely to include limited-edition large prints for Writers House events and chapbooks — small pamphlets of poetry or prose.

The Fine Arts Department has a similar interest in the value of the hands-on process, which Comberg said will let “the students know that when they put down a letter and a space and a line, that it exists in reality, not in a virtual space.”

Matt Neff, a Design lecturer and print-shop manager, will teach a mixed-media class using the presses in the spring. Neff, whose students will combine printing with silkscreen, etching, lithography and photography, are “using everything that’s accessible to us to make images that cross the boundaries of traditional printmaking.”

Van Pelt Library values the project for its cultural and historical investment in the study of print and publication, Comberg said.

The print shop is poised to be fully operational for design classes and the 15th Room Press by late November.

A ceremonial unveiling of the project will likely coincide with the Jan. 17 celebration of printing pioneer Benjamin Franklin’s 300th birthday.