For twenty-two years, volunteers at the San Jose Printers’ Guild have kept the art of printing alive.
In a world where books can be downloaded in digital format and sending messages is as easy as tapping on a phone screen, Jim Gard, chairman of the Printers’ Guild, and guild member Matt Kelsey, shed light on how the printing press serves as a reminder of the days when communication required a concentrated effort and skilled craftsmanship.
Jim, you have been with the Printers’ Guild since the beginning. Could you share a little history on how the Printers’ Guild came about?
Jim: The Print Shop exhibit opened in the ’70s, and although the San Jose Historical Museum had some volunteers, they worked independently and lacked organization. In 1992, the museum staff, as well as some of the printers, met and formed the Printers’ Guild to provide consistent printing demonstrations to the visiting public. From then on, the group has met monthly, maintaining a shop volunteer schedule, creating, printing exhibits, and repairing and acquiring equipment.
What types of equipment are used in the Print Shop?
Jim: Letterpress. We have small, table-top Kelsey presses, a Chandler & Price Pilot press, and some cylinder proof presses. But our main attraction is the F.M. Weiler Liberty press, circa 1884. This heavy floor model press gives visitors a close-up look at the workings of a treadle-powered “jobber.”What are demonstrations at the Print Shop like?
Matt: Members of the San Jose Printers’ Guild continue to practice the skills mastered by printers of old, using some 200 cases of metal and wood type, including many rare and antique designs. The best experience, though, is when we put the Pilot press right up to the railing and let visitors operate it themselves.
Matt, you are the lead organizer for this year’s Bay Area Printers’ Fair, an event that celebrates letterpress printing and related arts. Does this event bring us back to the roots of graphic design?
Matt: Yes, the Printers’ Fair takes us back to the time when the printer was the graphic designer. The printer knew what sizes and styles of type were available in the shop and knew how to combine them to create the right look for the customer. A lot of graphic designers today really enjoy getting away from the computer and getting back to the roots of handling handset type and impressing ink into paper instead of manipulating pixels on a screen.
For visitors and Guild members alike, I am sure there is a bit of nostalgia that one feels when observing and participating in the printing process. What do Guild members and visitors take away from this shared historical experience?
Jim: The Guild brings together these enthusiasts with a purpose, which they can share with each other and the public.
Matt: Guild members enjoy keeping alive the “black art” using the same basic technology pioneered by Gutenberg over 500 years ago. I have taught a number of workshops at the Print Shop, and I am always energized by the enthusiasm and creativity of the students. In one day, they learn to handset type and arrange a short poem or quotation into an attractive layout. Everyone goes home with a feeling of creativity and accomplishment.With technology constantly advancing, what does the art of printing serve as a reminder of?
Matt: The museum Print Shop replicates a typical print shop of the early 1900s, where local businesses would go when they needed flyers, stationery, business cards, labels, and myriad other forms of ink on paper. Now we think of a “printer” as a machine connected to the computer, that quickly produces copies on command; a hundred years ago, a “printer” was a skilled craftsman who consulted with the customer about their printing needs, found the right sizes and styles of type to design and compose the text from handset metal type, printed a proof for the customer’s approval, and then carefully prepared the job for press.
Jim: The art of printing serves as a reminder of the labor that was once involved in communication. With all this handset type, there used to be a lot more people involved: specialists in typesetting, press operation, proofreading.
Matt: It is a reminder that, back then, printing was an act of freedom. In the words of journalist A. J. Liebling, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”
Written by Natalia Sanchez
Photography by Gregory Cortez