Beginning our printing projects, albeit frustrating, was a thought-provoking experience. I am aware that my inexperience with the material of a print shop, paired with a predisposed fondness for a keyboard, made it difficult for me to grasp the rules of composition of text. Each individual letter needs to be placed upside down and backwards, spacing (en spaces and em spaces) needs to be taken into account, and all of it needs to be cased inside the furniture; a process that seems arduous now, but was incredibly timesaving and efficient for its time. I found Lindsay Lynch’s simile in How I Came to Love the En Space useful when thinking about how to construct text within a composing stick:
To understand letterpress printing, imagine that every letter you see on your screen is an object, a tiny piece of metal. Not only is every letter an object, but every space between every letter is also an object. Every space between words, every space between lines—every bit of white space is an object. When typesetting, a printer has to think about negative space as something tangible.
The tangibility of letters and spaces in particular is something that I was unfamiliar with. I am used to these objects being represented in abstracted forms (fonts, space bars, keys) which can be easily manipulated into various formats. The printing process provoked be into thinking about how texts were created during this period, as well as reflecting on my own experiences when I come in contact with texts.
Textual production, though timesaving for its time, was an engineering endeavor that required patience and skill. Because of this, I would assume that these products of labor would have held a significant value to them. Indeed, these object were made with care and expertise by the hands of many. Even the making of the paper was a collaborative and integrated process:
At rows of blank-looking counters sat rows of blank-looking girls, with blank, white folders in their blank hands, all blankly folding blank paper. (Herman Melville: The Tartarus of Maids, p. 5)
This placed the printed book in the center of literary culture, allowing texts to produced on a far greater scale than previously available. Societal norms or widely accepted practices could be projected through literature to a wider audience than ever before, which may have stifled other conflicting voices.
Even places like The Victoria Press were politically and culturally charged; women may have felt autonomous and prideful about the skill and expertise they were developing, but could be taken out of this environment when they became “of marrying age.” Moreover, those with the ability to print were able to subjectively choose what was printed, which is an interesting way to frame texts from this time.