Last week I attended the auction of the Boston Printing Office, and it was fascinating.
The printing office was a genuine printing plant, a factory really, that produced whatever printed materials the City of Boston needed. Poking around, it was clear they weren’t producing fine novels, it was a lot of ballots, policies, notices and commendations. I’m sure they did good work there, but this wasn’t a craft shop, they were blue-collar workers doing city work. In the corner was a phone booth, the inside plastered with cut-out pictures of women in bikinis. In magic marker on one wall it said, “When in doubt, ship it out.”
I was there mostly to see the old printing equipment and especially the type. In these days of digital publishing, it astounds me that people used to (and still do) print by arranging tiny pieces of metal into lines of letters, placing those just right into rectangular forms, then running them through presses to produce individual sheets. Hundreds of years ago entire encyclopedias were produced through this painstaking manual process. It’s a testament to the printed word that it was a viable commercial endeavor.
Of course this office was more automated than that, using Linotype machines and large automatic presses, but the interest for me was the more antiquated technology.
The auction itself was interesting and fun. The crowd clearly divided into the industrial people, and the craft and designer people. As the auction got going, people clustered around the auctioneer, getting a sense of who was really buying.
All of the type was collected into one lot, Lot 400. During the auction, all the conversation was about who would get Lot 400, how much it would go for, and what they would do with it. The educated opinion was that it was not in good condition to print with, and the cases were worn and too large to sell to a general audience. The difficulty with many of the lots was that they were very heavy and large, so no matter what you paid for them, you’d also be paying thousands of dollars just to move and store them somewhere else.
The two Linotype machines went for $10 each, precisely because they were so unwieldy. Everyone was relieved that they were bought by The Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation, rather than to a scrapper who considered them only so many pounds of metal and would have melted them down.
Lot 400 was finally sold to a mysterious individual who frankly looked a lot like Locke from Lost. He paid $9750 for all the type and cases in the room, and as soon as he did, he was swarmed by a dozen people asking how they could get part of it. To add to his mystery, he had no business cards, and no email address. Perhaps he really was Locke, jumping through time to save outdated technology!
Or maybe it isn’t outdated. There are more people doing letterpress printing than there were 15 years ago, so it’s experiencing a resurgence, and people are working to document and save the tools that are still around. One good side effect of the day was to meet and hear about people in the Boston area working in letterpress:
- Firefly Letterpress is a local letterpress shop. Jesse Marsolais, whose photos of the auction I’ve used throughout this post, works there.
- Interrobang does letterpress and Linotype slugs.
- MassArt has letterpress classes open to the public.
- Letterpress Things is a letterpress equipment retailer in Chicopee.
In the end, the auction had two distinct feelings: first, a nostalgia and sadness as a working printing factory was split up and shipped off, some parts to be simply dismantled for scrap. The old ways were good ways, they just aren’t good enough any more. But second, a hopefulness seeing all these people turn up to see the old equipment off, and to make use of the parts they can in their own smaller ways.