Pressing, Printing, and Lost Arts

By Scott Keith


My daughter, Autumn, loves books. It is not simply that she loves reading, which she does. Rather, she loves the aesthetic of nicely bound books paired with the process of making organic the information she receives from the texts themselves. The book itself, to her, is more than a means of conveying information. She sees a fine book as a work of art which has attached to it the higher purposes of education and enlightenment.

When she finishes High School and her Associate of Liberal Arts degree here in the United States, she hopes to attend West Dean College in the United Kingdom. While there, she wants to complete a Post Graduate Diploma in Conservation of Books and Library Materials. My response to her somewhat irregular ambition is one of delight. (I delight in most things “Autumn” because I love her very much.) To that end, over the weekend, Joy and I took Autumn to the International Printing Museum. Our hope is to expose her to some of what she seems to love; the art of printing, binding, and bookmaking.


The museum is small in footprint yet immense in enlightenment. The museum is located in a not-so-good part of Carson, California, and is housed in an old warehouse that has the feel of a work of love rather than a finely tuned corporate machine. Once inside, we were greeted by one of the four or five volunteers, all of whom are over sixty-five years of age. After paying the admittance fee, we were kindly escorted to the “tour group,” which consisted of the three of us and two older men.

I found the whole thing amazing. The docent demonstrated the use of a replica fifteenth century Guttenberg Press, printing presses from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and finally a Heidelberg Cylinder Press made in 1964. Hand presses, linotypes, and complicated electric machinery were all educational props used by the docent to teach us not only about printing and binding but also about history and craftsmanship. I was, and am, astounded by the art and craftsmanship of the past. I am even impressed by something as “simple” as printing a pamphlet; which as it turns out, was in the past, not simple at all. As I sit and type on my new MacBook, I realize that I am not a luddite. Yet, tours like the one I took yesterday, help me to realize that I have it too easy.

At one point, the docent demonstrated a linotype machine. A linotype is a “line casting” machine once ubiquitous in the printing industry. Essentially, this machine would cut cast a line of letters, ending the days of the need for a printer’s apprentice to individually set each letter into a “case.” (See, I learned a lot.) A linotype is a very complicated machine. To my estimation, it seemed to be made up of at least a million parts. At one point, I asked the docent if the museum had a program for training younger people to work on the machines. While his answer was somewhat unclear, I got the impression that they do not.


So where am I going with this? Printing, as I experienced it yesterday, is a lost art. Admitting that printing is a lost art is an interesting thing for me to admit as I embark on the adventure of leading a fledgling print house (New Reformation Publications). To clarify, it is not that I think the print industry is dead, rather I am saying that it is fairly obvious to me that the art of printing is. In fact, even as the hipsters try to reclaim some of what we have lost, I wonder if it will be possible to push back against the flood of mass production and stem the tide even a little.

In my book, Being Dad, Autumn tells the story of a time when I gave her some money for books. There, she explains:

Shopping with Mum today, I spent some of my hard-earned babysitting money on my favorite thing in the world: books. I spent $120.68 on six precious volumes but had only $85.00 on my person. I made a deal with my mother that she would pay the rest of the money I didn’t have, but we would transfer the money from my bank account when we got home. This transaction of the remaining money had to be made from Pa’s phone. When told he had to transfer the money, he tried to get Mum not to split hairs and just let it go, but she was firm on this point. After being unable to persuade her to release the debt, he took it upon himself and gave up $35.00 of his seldom-acquired cash and freed me from my burden.

… Mum was completely justified in her pursuit of my debt. It’s not like I couldn’t afford it or didn’t have enough money in my account, and I hadn’t even asked her to help me out or carry the cost (which if I had, I’m sure she would have readily done). Pa knows I could afford it and that I would pay it, but he didn’t want me to have to. He loves me and is willing to do anything for me, even the smallest debt he is completely willing to take upon himself and show his grace to me.

While I love her appreciation of my small gesture, she only understands half of why I paid that debt.


First, I love her and want her to be free from burdens. Maybe it was right to pay the debt or maybe it was wrong. I’m not always sure though I try whenever possible to err on the side of graciousness. (It is the point of the book.) Second, I love that she loves books and the art of bookmaking. In fact, I love that she wants to learn a dead art and that she desires to keep even our historical vestiges of that art alive. I will do whatever I can to support her somewhat odd drive to be educated in something so rare and obscure. (Joy is in total support of her aspirations as well, hence our family trip to the museum yesterday.)

Pressing, printing, and binding are only a few examples of the many arts we have lost. If your child shows any interest in them at all, maybe it would be worth considering support of that interest, even if it doesn’t lead to financial wealth. Emotional wealth and symmetry are often found in learning a dead art. I hope and pray that more of us learn to find that symmetry as we “progress” into a future certain to be filled with technology that makes life easier rather more complex. Sometimes it is the complexity that reveals the art!