For three of my four years at King College, my work-study job was in the college’s print shop, The Sign of the George, a surprisingly light, airy space in the basement of the dining hall, where my chief responsibility each morning was to find my boss’s orange juice. For some reason, this was always under his hat on the workbench where he made linoleum woodcuts for the press. It was rather typical of Dr. George Parker Winship, Jr. that he often lost both hat and juice, and his thick Boston accent declaring that he knew he brought them in with him, still echoes in my memory.
An English professor with a fine artistic mind, Dr. Winship ran a print shop that was as much art as it was utility. In those days when (I sound like a dinosaur here) computers were confined to the math department, we were the college’s “special” printer, doing the work that needed to look elegant and polished. We had racks of fonts, reams of paper, hundreds of pounds of lead slugs for justifying lines, buckets of ink. Dr. Winship taught me to read upside down and backwards. I memorized the position of letters in the type cases so that my hands moved automatically, feeling for the nick on each one, slotting in the slivers of metal that justified the lines and made them fit tightly in the stick.
I learned to watch for rivers – lines of white space that sometimes ran through a block of type, distracting the eye. I learned not to hyphenate a word unless I really, really had to, and never more than one hyphenated word in a row. I learned, oh, how I learned, to proofread while the type was still in the galleys.
When the sticks were full, we’d lock them in an iron chase (kind of like a frame) with other sticks, and hold them in with expanding quoins in various sizes. Not getting these tight enough was a newbie mistake, and it resulted in a pile of type on the floor and several days’ work wasted. You didn’t do it twice.
The form went on the press, we squeezed ink on the platen, and then we spent what felt like forever getting the setting pins in the right spots. The paper had to be positioned perfectly, since the position of the block of type was fixed. If we had page numbers, those were part of the form and had to be exactly right every time. It was fiddly work, often frustrating, always satisfying. On a good day, cards, invitations, playbills, and even book pages flew off the press. On a bad one, we’d struggle for hours to line up the page numbers, or get the woodcuts to sit evenly with the rest of the type. The Boston accent got sharper the longer it took. Some days we just had to walk off for a while.
Looking back, I cannot believe I got paid to do this. Even at the time, I recognized the privilege of the work; he only took two apprentices a year, and I got to be one of them for three. Of course, I realized the advantage to the press as well; once I’d learned the skill, I could work independently, doubling our output. For an English major, it was so much better than washing dishes or filing registration forms.
I have just finished reading a book on fonts – Simon Garfield’s entertaining Just My Type. It’s made me remember Dr. Winship, The Sign of the George, and the marvelous art of typesetting and letterpress printing. It reminded me of the smell of ink and the way people from Massachusetts mangle the word “genre.” Rumor has it that the press is still in the basement of the FAB (that would be Fine Arts Building, formerly the dining hall), waiting for somebody to take an interest in it. For Not Much, I’d go back down there in a heartbeat and teach a Jan. term class like Pat Winship once did, on printing as an art form. It would be a spectacular memorial to the professor who taught me so much, but really, I’m just looking for a way, once again, to wear a printer’s apron and get ink on my hands.