A little while back my boyfriend Ryan gave me an apprenticeship in the Print Shop at Black Creek Pioneer Village for my birthday (check out the apprenticeship that I gave Ryan for his birthday last year with the Brew Master). This gave me the chance to operate the 18th Century printing presses that they have on site and to create my own advertisement for a newspaper (for my own collection of prints).
For my apprenticeship Ryan also included a costume rental which allowed me to really get a feel for what I was doing – it really did feel like I had traveled back in time to the 1860’s! My costume included a blouse, skirt, and apron. The material was cotton but it was still a lot of material to be wearing on a hot day in the summer, especially in a building without air conditioning!
I studied Art and Art History for my undergrad and I specialized in print media and design. This gave me a large knowledge of different forms of printmaking such as lino prints, wood block prints, silkscreen, lithography, etching, and engraving. I also learned some of the history of printmaking and learned how to use a letterpress printer once. This technique is sort of like a letterpress machine, but not nearly as fast and efficient.
A lot of people don’t know this, but to print a newspaper back in the day each letter was its own piece of metal that had to be assembled to create your article or set of phrases. This is called movable type. This means that to form a paragraph you have to select each letter from the type drawer and arrange them accordingly, including spacing and punctuation. You also have to make sure that each piece is lined up to face the correct way. If you can see in the photo above, each piece of metal has a groove in it near the bottom to help the printer make sure that all of the letters are facing the correct direction. You also have to read it backwards so that once it prints it reads the right way. As one can imagine, this is a very time consuming process. A small print shop such as the one I was working in would probably only be able to produce one newspaper edition per week. The majority of their time would be spent arranging all of their type.
This is the type drawer that I was working out of. Each piece of movable type was created by hand. This meant that someone would have the job of creating new sizes and styles of font. Each set has upper case letters, lower case letters, numbers, and punctuation. More common letters, such as the letter E, would require more pieces of type to be made as they are used very frequently. Other letters that are used less such as Q would have fewer pieces made. There are some phrases that we use in our everyday language today that are actually derived from printmaking. Uppercase and Lowercase refer to the drawers of type. Uppercase letters would be kept in the top drawer and lowercase letters in the bottom drawer. “Mind your P’s and Q’s” is a saying that is often heard in printmaking, referring to the difficulty in telling the letters apart as metal pieces of movable type. When you are working with a small font and everything reads backwards so that it prints forwards, some letters get mixed up and turned around.
The saying “coining a phrase” refers to the mechanisms that hold all of the pieces in place when you are printing. The metal keys on the bottom of the plate are used to hold everything tightly together so that nothing comes out when you run your type through the press. Above is a photo of what my advertisement looked like when I had finished arranging everything to print. The ad is for an old hat company in Toronto that was promoting their “Beaver and Imitation Beaver” hats. I believe this shop was actually located on King Street and this ad was recreated from a copy that the historians at the museum had uncovered.
It took me about 6 hours to make my advertisement. Arranging the movable type took several hours and most of my time. It made me go crosseyed at one point because I was trying so hard to read the small font backwards.
Once I had finished that everything got easier. Next I had to transfer my plate of type to the printing press.
Once it was on the printing bed all I had to do was roll ink onto my image, put a piece of paper on it, and run it through the press! This part actually went quite quickly and once I got a rhythm going I was able to make around 40 prints in 45 minutes.
This press was made some time in the 1830’s and was very common for small town newspapers in the United States. I had to pull the bar there to apply 200 pounds of pressure to my print!
Above is the final product! It was such a great experience to printing in a pioneer print shop. The apprenticeships at Black Creek are very educational and fun and I would definitely recommend trying one out! Thank you to Ryan for the great experience and for the photos!