Division I Learns Letterpress: A Long (But Worth It) Process
By Division I Media & Journalism reporter Zayna
This past Friday, on October 21, the Division One Humanities students went to a letterpress workshop at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. This year in humanities, we’re learning about media and journalism. For one of our projects, every student picked a muckraker they would like to learn more about. A muckraker is a reporter who uncovers and reports on issues that most people don’t know about. Before we went to the workshop, we created a six-word headline from the perspective of our muckraker. It could contain either a topic they cared about, something they found, out an issue they believed in. At the workshop, we would print these headlines on a real letterpress.
We all took the train to Roxbury Crossing and then walked to MassArt from there. Our teacher Catherine and Kenny (a Meridian senior) were chaperones. We walked inside, and there was a small, almost claustrophobic room that contained high shelves with boxes that had different fonts and cuts for printing. Keith, our workshop leader, came to greet us. He talked about the origins of the printing press, showed us different things that people would print, and explained the different materials—some types were made of metal, others were made of wood. With new knowledge in our brains, we took the elevator up to floor nine to work with the actual letterpress.
Keith entered a code onto the keypad and we entered the room. Much bigger! We put our bags down and immediately started touching things, but Keith wanted to set some ground rules, including no horse playing to protect the equipment. Each of us stood by these rectangular things that came up about four feet off the ground. It was time to “set our type,” which meant laying out each letter, space, or punctuation exactly how it should go to be printed. The rectangular cases had little boxes in them and each box had a different letter or piece of punctuation. There was a piece of paper that said where every letter was because it would be impossible to look through every letter until you found the one you wanted. Next, we got instructions about how we to hold the “job stick” that we would put our letters in. We also learned small but important details like why a “spaces” are shorter—they need to be shorter so they will not print. The process of setting type was long. It took most of us around forty-five minutes just to set six words!
After lots of frustration of people's letters falling over, everyone was finally done. We watched Keith put the six-word headers into the bed of the press. We rolled the ink onto our letters and had a look to make sure they were all covered in ink. We “pulled a proof” and it looked pretty good, but Keith needed us to fix a few errors, like fonts that had broken type or incorrect spelling.
Eventually we were all done setting it up again, so we went in and we each got to turn the handle of the press. When the finished product came out it was beautiful! It might have been a long process, but it was definitely worth the time.