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September 26, 2007:

‘The bite of the type’

By Elyse Graham ’07

For someone used to the halogen glare of the 21st century, to step into the typography studio at 185 Nassau St. is to feel a brief illusion of sepia gloom. Three stamp presses sprawl about the room, surrounded by equipment for hand-printing books: ink tins, typesticks, a composing stone, type cabinets glutted with thousands of pounds of lead. The same technology rigged print shops through the publishing explosion of the Enlightenment. The difference that would strike you is the smell.

“The men were uproarious,” said Robert Darnton, a leading book historian, of 18th-century presses. “The common press, a huge wooden affair, danced around and made a terrific noise. And the air was smelly. The ink balls used to distribute ink on surfaces had to be kept damp, and the best way to keep it damp was with urine.”

One Friday during the spring term, just weeks before he would leave Princeton to become director of the Harvard University Library, Darnton brought a group of students to the studio to contact a world that existed before digital type. They dropped slugs into typesticks, wedged these into metal frames, and rolled them through the press’s maw. A broadsheet rolled out, an excerpt from a treatise on printing, the words dented into the page. “We call it the bite of the type,” said Robert Milevski, the preservation librarian in charge of the space. “Some printers want what you call the kiss of the type, where the print is just lying on top of the paper.”

The idea, said Darnton, was to show students that books are not just “contours of ideas,” but social and physical artifacts that bloom out of their culture in every way: “Then when you actually look at books from the 18th century, they come alive.”

Over 10 years, he brought to the studio more than 100 students in undergraduate and graduate seminars on the history of print. One of the founders of the field of book history, Darnton has mapped new ways of understanding not only the ideas of intellectuals, but the dissemination of their thought. He also maps the social relations between citizens of the republic of letters, from the lofty to the startling.

On finding an ink thumbprint smudged into an old quarto, Darnton traced in the printing shop’s hourly wage book the name of that sheet’s printer, “Bonnemain.” It emerged that Bonnemain “had raised hell in this shop” – he had seduced a girl who worked there, and the two had thrown papers everywhere. Because he didn’t keep jobs long, letters from the foremen of other printing shops furnished more details: He was born in Normandy, apprenticed in Paris, had reddish hair. “There was a chance,” Darnton said, “to glimpse fairly deeply into the life of the sort of man who gets left out of history.”

The seminar leaps across disciplines, including intellectual history (the books Voltaire published illegally show how far his ideas pushed past the acceptable), sociology (why did the Book of the Month Club subscribe to high aesthetic values but reject modernist literature?), and history from below (that the output of Enlightenment printers varied so grossly reflects alien attitudes toward time; they spent theirs in ways that we would find enormously wasteful). It ends with a trip to the Princeton University Press offices (a professor whose book got a lively cover feared nobody would take him seriously). It begins with a visit to the Schiede Library to examine a treasure up close. “One student said to me, ‘I’m going to write to my father today that I touched the Gutenberg Bible,’ ” Darnton said.

Students have directed this interdisciplinary energy to papers invoking economics, English, and art history. A blind undergraduate wrote a paper on ways that the physicality of Braille affected the way that she read. A few have gone on to study book history in graduate school. One graduate student used the course to help set up his own printing operation. It’s “a tremendous tactile satisfaction, to fold, cut, and sew a book yourself,” said Alexander Bick, who used early printers as a model when he and two friends set up an independent press that makes books by hand.

The typography studio’s printing equipment was originally acquired by the University for practical, not pedagogical, purposes. The room has served as a print studio since the 1920s, when it was part of the program in visual arts. (Some cabinets in the corner hold relics from this earlier life, like Christmas cards and posters advertising student events.) When resources waned, the room went off life-support: The door was locked and the contents gathered dust.

Then 10 years ago, it revived; at the same time it coalesced with a print shop that had been in Firestone Library, serving library functions, since 1952. The equipment brought over from Firestone included an old Albion iron hand press (it had been stored in a second-floor room in Firestone) and a clamshell press, found in the basement of the library. (With a clamshell press, the type and the paper clap together like a clamshell.) The librarians used it to print their own forms in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It has a foot treadle, from an era before plentiful electric motors. The clamshell was tucked away when even librarians found it out of date.

The house type is much younger: It was commissioned with the room’s inauguration 10 years ago. Some type in the room is much older, some younger as the studio orders type for special projects; but very old type isn’t much used, as it gets worn and battered. New type has nice, crisp edges.

The house type is called Centaur, a Roman type; it’s a serif type designed in the early 20th century, but it was modeled on the earliest Venetian type. It’s probably not so different from what appeared on Trajan’s Column in Rome, except that would have been all capital letters. The italics house face is called Arrighi, which is an Italian type that was popular during the Renaissance. It has a strong cursive feel, which is supposed to gesture toward the growth of humanistic handwriting in the Renaissance.

Not long ago, it was decided to shut down the typography studio in order to make room for a dance studio. Petitioning by faculty members saved the space. Now that Princeton is entering a new era in the creative and performing arts, the faculty is exploring more ways to open the studio to students. The fall the Princeton Atelier, an arts program started by Toni Morrison that brings to campus leading artists who collaborate on projects that involve students who themselves are involved in collaboration, will use the studio for a class in collotype printing.END