Old wood type holds the patina of years of fingers caressing it, tossing it, placing it on metal trays or handheld composing sticks, and, once arranged, transferring it to the bed of a vintage printing press. I like to think it contains memory, too, of the words each letter built. I’ve long loved handling type, whether chunks of metal that lie heavy in the hand, or the lightweight wood, often larger, used for posters and announcements and headlines.
So I was delighted to sign up for a letterpress printing class that, as it happened, took place in the back side of an art gallery five days after my best friend finally died. She spent a dozen years living with colon cancer, much of it in reasonably good health, and I got to spend time with her about seven weeks before she died. I count myself lucky in many ways, but seeing Georgann for a week, despite the fact that she spent most of it sleeping, is one of those ways.
Even a death that’s expected upends the loved ones who weather it, so I walked into Myrtle Press a bit unsteady. Death always feels like a gut punch, and the closer we are to the one who dies, the harder the punch. We try not to walk around doubled over, but it’s hard not to. And whether they’re aware of it or not, the dead walk with us, especially in the early hours and days of their new status. We think of them almost nonstop. We wish they hadn’t left. We wish we’d said or done something we didn’t say or do.
So it was that my newest companion spirit accompanied me into a space of old type and a Vandercook cylinder proof press from about 1950 to meet a young woman named Barb, who was both printer and teacher. When I looked into the plastic bins of large wood type and some smaller containers of smaller type, I smiled. I have lots of old type at home, both wood and metal, but it’s fun to see someone else’s collection. Even better to be allowed to touch it.
After she introduced herself, Barb gave us each an 11×17 empty metal printers tray. “That’s your template,” she said. “You’ve got that much space to say whatever you want to say.” She waved at the bins of type. “Dive in!”
Since I was already standing by a big bin containing letters about four inches tall, I plunged in and ran my fingers over the smooth surface of much-used type. I had no idea what I wanted to say. I hadn’t arrived with anything specific in my head. But just like in the writing groups, if you put yourself in the environment and relax a bit, things show up for you. In this case, I picked up a ligature—a word I’ve long loved—two letters put together on one piece of wood, a lowercase double f. ff, it said. What could I do with ff?
And there was Georgann’s laugh in my head. “BFF,” I heard her say, as though she was standing next to me. For decades she had signed off handwritten letters that morphed into emails and texts with BFF. I began searching for a lowercase b to go with the ff ligature. It appeared easily, and I set the two pieces of type on my tray. I saw a large ampersand, one of my favorite pieces of punctuation that looks a bit like a treble clef. Grabbed that. Pawed through the bin to locate a G, then an A and a T. BFF GAT! Georgann Turner.
I giggled. Next to me, Missy Anapolsky searched through another bin. Missy is a graphic design professor at the college I just retired from. Several years ago she and I did a book together about the first century of the college’s history.
Missy looked at my tray. “Is that your friend who just died?” she asked.
“Yep,” I said. We stood there for a moment, looking down at the initials.
Then Missy’s hand dove into the bin in front of me. “Here’s a J!” she said.
I blinked. It took me a few seconds, but I saw where she was going.
“Oh!” I said, and I started looking for my other two initials: an L and an H. They appeared, which seemed a bit miraculous since Barb’s type collection was definitely not a complete font. But there, in uppercase, to match the ampersand, were my initials.
I added a lowercase s, and this is what appeared on my type tray:
There we were in upside down and backwards type that was probably older than both of us:
At least, I thought that’s what it said. Barb locked up the type on the bed of the press, snugging it in with various pieces of wood furniture, along with two quoins—slender pieces of metal that, with a special key, can be expanded to hold the creation in place. She put a piece of brown kraft paper (aka cardstock) on the platform atop the press and cranked the handle that drew the paper onto the great silver cylinder and over the type. Barb pulled the paper off the cylinder, and to our surprise it read:
Lowercase b looks a lot like a lowercase d, and I laughed, remembering similar mistakes long ago at a small newspaper in my hometown, as I put away larger type used for headlines or posters in the giant Hamilton job cases, easily mistaking b’s and d’s or lowercase l’s with the number 1.
I remember the nearly deaf Linotype operators who, when I expressed my desire to become one of them, told me that theirs was no job for a girl, and besides, they wouldn’t be around that much longer. They were right: Within a few years the old hot type letterpress days had ended in favor of electronic offset typesetting machines that resembled giant IBM typewriters. Those produced long strips of copy that had to be cut into different lengths, run through a waxer and stuck to paper pages that would be photographed and turned into metal plates for the press. I spent many hours pasting up newspaper pages as a young journalist. That technology gave way to computers that produced similar galleys, as the strips of copy were called, and eventually to digital systems that sent completed pages directly to presses.
It has not escaped me that I have lived through the end of hot type into cold type into computer-generated type to no type at all of online publications. Perhaps that’s why it was so satisfying, as I weathered the fresh loss of an old friend, to put my hands on wooden letters, set them into a satisfying arrangement and print them on a press older than I. Even if it did have a boo-boo (aka doo-doo).
Missy found the proper b and handed it to Barb, who removed some furniture to replace the letter and then locked it all back up again in a matter of minutes. She cranked the handle and made another print. Voila!
“Now you do it,” Barb said.
I grasped the handle that had been turned thousands of times and cranked it, grinning with delight at seeing red inked letters appear on paper—tangible proof of two of my longtime loves.
(Thanks to Karen, a printing classmate, for taking the photos of me!)