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Print Like It's 1897: The History Behind the Shakespeare Press Museum

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Travel along the coastal route of the El Camino Real and explore the rich, diverse cultural and artistic identity of San Luis Obispo County. This installment in the series celebrates the mavericks, pioneers, and experimental thinkers of the county.

Shakespearean Moniker with a Typographic Twist

The Shakespeare Press Museum is not a rumination on Romeo and Juliet but rather a working 19th-century printing museum located at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. The museum's collections are behemoths of a forgotten era of printing: metal and wood type, printing presses, and a library containing early examples of printing in California and the West. The museum's pioneering beginnings originate with Charles "Shakespeare" Palmer, whose private collection of printing presses and type were donated to Cal Poly in 1964. (A predilection for poetry earned Palmer his Shakespearian nickname in high school.) The California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) campus adopted Palmer's moniker and the museum was named in his honor, officially dedicated as the Shakespeare Press Museum in 1966.

The museum occupies the basement of the Graphic Communication Building at Cal Poly, juxtaposed with the high-tech workings and modern technological advancements in printing by the Graphic Communication Department. The museum space is packed ceiling-high with type cabinets displaying narrow cases containing typographic fonts with rare gems from early California type foundries, highly-stylized display fonts, and five-inch high wood type. Presses fill the remaining floor space, including a Campbell "Country" Cylinder Press that the museum's promotional materials boast as "The crown jewel of the collection." Built in 1890, the press typifies milestones in California's history, characterized by its geographic travels. Manufactured in New York, the press was shipped to San Francisco where it was used by a weekly newspaper. Placed in storage, it survived the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. It was later moved to Soledad, California, where it was used to print another weekly newspaper until 1959. Transitioning with ease from the 19th century into the 21st century, the press is in top working condition and is used by Cal Poly students to produce posters and college-life printed ephemera.

The collection spans 150 years of California printing and was assembled and thoughtfully curated by Palmer, who dedicated 30 years to hunting down and restoring antique pieces of printing equipment. His collection grew to become a historic record of the typefaces, printing presses, and other equipment used by printers of the American West during the late 1800s. In a 1949 edition of Printing Magazine Palmer explains his passion, "I like printing, and believe we should preserve its tools as well as the examples of its work. Because of these goals, when I found the material on hand was of growing historical value, I decided my hobby should become a lasting and growing exhibit, with its equipment maintained in use and not permitted to lapse into rusting idleness. I hope the collections will prove of increasing value to students of printing in the future." The collection is used as both a museum and a working lab for the study of typography and traditional printing techniques and is used by Cal Poly's students, faculty, and the community at large of printers, artists, and hobbyists.

According to the museum's volunteer staff curator, Laura Sorvetti, Palmer was one of the earliest and most successful collectors of Western printing history. "His success was due in part to his familiarity and involvement in the California printing industry, being present at the right time and place, and having the support of printers and publishers," explained Sorvetti. "Palmer was motivated to collect equipment that was in danger of being forgotten, or worse, of being destroyed. He recognized the historical importance of the equipment and their context to preserving the history of the early development of California as a state." The timing of Palmer's collecting dovetailed with the transformation taking place in the printing industry to newer automated presses resulting in small printing shops and newspapers to dispose of old equipment, primarily in the region of California's central valley and older gold-mining communities, where the small newspapers were the most prolific historically in the state.

Student Curated History

The museum is a student-run organization supported by the Graphic Communication Department. Students rely on the expertise of faculty advisor Brian P. Lawler, a highly recognized typography scholar. Student curators help run the museum, cataloging type, running the presses, blogging about the museum, and hosting school tours throughout the year. Many student curators like Sorvetti have continued their interest in printing history, developing professional careers in the realm of historic preservation and typographic arts. In 1987, during his tenure as student curator at the museum, Cal Poly alumnus Mark Barbour printed the limited edition publication "San Simeon Revisited -- the 1919 Correspondence Between Architect Julia Morgan and William Randolph Hearst." The book was entirely handset and included plates reproducing Morgan's delicate renderings of the Hearst estate at San Simeon. After graduation, Barbour transitioned to director of the newly-founded International Printing Museum in Carson, California, which he has shaped into one of the most highly-recognized printing museums in the world.

Like Barbour, Sorvetti's experience as student curator at the museum directed her future career in unanticipated directions. What began as chance encounter during her sophomore year at Cal Poly grew to shape her graduate thesis work and her professional career in archival preservation and printing history. "My first introduction to the museum was at their booth at Cal Poly's Open House. As a history undergrad, I was intrigued," explained Sorvetti. "But it wasn't until I actually went into the museum and had the opportunity to run one of the presses that I fell in love, hard. The museum was the perfect mix of my interests: teaching, history, and the social aspects of 19th century life in California." After graduation, Sorvetti joined the the staff of Special Collections & University Archives at Cal Poly's Kennedy Library, where she draws on her printing scholarship, gleaned from her experience at the Museum and her thesis work, to provide access and instruction in the world of rare and fine press books and archival materials. Reflecting on the connections between archives, printing, and California history, Sorvetti said: "It's remarkable, when you stop and think about it, to realize that all the printed records of our history were printed one-by-one by men and women on these presses, all over the state, in what came to be a massive industry." Expanding on her scholarship, in October 2012, Sorvetti will be presenting a paper on California printing education to The Book Club of California at their Centennial Symposium: Way Out West.

California Printing History

The museum portrays the fascinating world of California printing history, from its origins in the mid-1800s through the transformation of letterpress printing from an industry to an art in the late twentieth century. Printing was formative in the creation of what we now know as the state of California. California's demographics at the time of the Gold Rush were unique -- a high percentage of literate settlers demanded printed information. New innovations in printing shaped the visual culture of California, from Gold Rush mining certificates to elegant fruit crate labels.

But what about the printers themselves? Sorvetti examines the conditions in her scholarship as follows: "Typesetting and printing were backbreaking, eye-straining, difficult work that were compounded by the physical environment. Print shops were notoriously filthy places: in the 1870s it was taken for granted that printing should be for the most part carried on in small, low, dark, crowded rooms, with dust-encrusted floors, dim windows never opened, and furniture covered with the accumulated dust of years. Shopfloor ventilation was often poor, gaslamp could consume the oxygen of five men, and the odors of the shop--including benzene, ink, the body odor of many men, cigars, spittoons, missed spittoons, spilled beer, and flatulence--were indescribable. One statistic found that in 1868 the average printer would die at 35, often due to respiratory illnesses such as tuberculosis that spread easily in the close quarters of the print shop."

Women were continuously fighting to enter the male-dominated profession, entering from the bottom as press feeders or underpaid compositors. The printing unions, which were very powerful in the industry, worked hard to undercut female competition. And yet women printers participated in the creation of the California printing industry. Even in the 1920s at Cal Poly, female students were enrolled in the printing program.

Twenty-First Century Printers

At the museum volunteers and curators have the unique opportunity to unite nineteenth and twenty-first century technologies and art. Faculty adviser Lawler has embarked on an ambitious project to create digital fonts of some of the rare wood and metal type in the collection. Once complete, these fonts will be offered to the public for use on modern computers. Proceeds from the sale of these fonts will be used to promote the museum and to support the museum's operating expenses and supplies. To date, twelve fonts have been drawn in OpenType format.

In addition to learning nineteenth-century typesetting techniques, students can explore the limits of printing. Sorvetti notes that the students, not experienced in the old-time ways of printing, are able to challenge the traditions and think innovatively about how the materials and equipment can be used. Students can take their own work--such as hand-drawn fonts or digitally designed art -- and convert them into plates, which can be used in the presses.

And yet, the museum still remains grounded in the historical context. "Come into the museum, and pick up a piece of type from 1897," Sorvetti shared with admiration. "Set it and lock it up exactly as printers did in 1897 and print it on a press used in 1897. The only new things you'll need are the paper and ink. Our goal at the museum is to connect us to our history. These machines are such an integral part of our history, and it is easy to get disconnected from that tradition in the digital realm of the twenty-first century. But at the museum, you can see the constant evolution of printing, technology, and society. It is a tradition of constant change."

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