Hand-Press Printing: The One That Got Away

Hand-Press Printing: The One That Got Away

The past few labs learning about the historical hand-press and the grand variety of type set have not only been my favorite topics of the course thus far, but they have transformed the way I perseive my own writing and the writing within the texts that I read.

Historical Value

The labs on learning about the hand-press has consisted of both learning its function and learning both its economical and social roles in their respective societies.

While hand-press printing is widely considered to be of a period that was advancing technologically, the economy during this period was advancing as well.

  • Jobs were being created for hand-press printing factories
  • Authors were finally being published and could sell their work

However the formation of these hand-press printing factories also formed a new social class.

As Sarah Werner mentions in her article, Finding Women in the Printing Shop, people in the 17th century had to register their right to print. This mere fact, as we are told throughout the background of Elizabeth Jocelin’s, The Mothers Legacie, reflects the social heirarchy that the ability of printing entailed. Werner frames the ability to print, as something that was passed down per edition of a book. Although Jocelin’s book was first printed by a man, it continued to be passed down to mostly women. Werner argues that these series of printing events in history, are ones that finally acknowledged women of having some sort of social class power.

“In the course of this single book’s printing history, we’ve seen women in nearly all the roles associated with making books: a woman wrote it, a woman published it, a woman speculated with it, and a women printed it” (Werner, 2014).

I must say that after my experience of performing the tedious task of type-setting and hand-pressing, I cannot wrap my mind around Werner’s claim. Especially in a period that was much more male chauvinistic than today, the transition of hand-press printing from a masculine role to a feminine role seems more of a social and political movement that affirms gender discrimination.

For the amount of characters that needs to be formed, typeset with impeccable precision and transferred to a tray to then be printed after carefully arranging the type’s surrounding furniture, putting women in this role almost seems like a form of social punishment for writing publicly and for perhaps being successful in their writing.

Although the roles of papermakers, compositors, and press operators were taken upon individually, these compartmentalizing of these positions within the hand-press factory, reflects how society compartmentalizes the social class and the role of women. By compartmentalizing women to one specific role, they are framed to be less skillful and versatile than perhaps men.

We saw this throughout Herman Melville’s, The Tartarus of Maids, where women are portrayed as a pretty accessory to the rough printing machinery. Melville’s depiction of women suggests that having women take on the roles of printing was just a tactic to hide the fact that the process of printing was one that dehumanized society and women specifically.

“Not a syllable was breathed. Nothing was heard but the low steady, overruling hum of the iron animals. The human voice was banished from the spot. Machinery–that vaunted slave of humanity–here stood menially served by human beings, who served mutely and cringingly as the slave serves the Sultan. The girls did not so much seem accessory wheels to the general machinery as mere cogs to the wheels” (Melville, 1855).

Present Value

As I consider the process of type-setting and hand-press printing in today’s society, I come to think that printing has transformed/developed from something personal to impersonal.

The tedious process of hand-pressing lets the compositor, type-setting and press-operator have some sort of relationship with the text. Perhaps this relationship is not within the context of the text but its within the production of the text. The relationship is one that prioritizes the production of the text, in every detail possible as something equally as valuable as the actual content the text depicts.

Today, this relationship almost seems non-existent with the ability to read online blogs, newspapers or novels on kindles. While artwork and form may be still inconsideration of the overall text, the process of production has come much more simple, accessible and something that I believe today society is taking advantage of.

If I were to elaborate my thoughts on this more, I would ask perhaps why the amount of leisure writing has decreased when writing and publishing one’s own writing, in fact has become much more accessible? Is it the fact that our modern technology-savvy culture does not consider the act of writing as a hard-working labor like its used to? That anyone can write and publish?

Perhaps this would be an interesting discussion to have in class!