Our Eden is before us, not behind us.
Your average letterpress-printing enthusiast1 probably shares this earth with more than sixty thousand like-minded souls. For instance, Briar Press, a popular letterpress community on the web, has nearly sixty thousand registered users. In other words, you could populate a reasonably sized small city with letterpress enthusiasts.
However, of this reasonable number of people using letterpress printing equipment, only a fraction actually use the equipment in its age-old way. Today’s letterpress printer most commonly prints with an image made from polymer and produced using a computer. These “photopolymer” plates are the correct size (.918 inches high, also called “type high”) to fit into an antique press, but they are divorced from the old process in an essential way. Letterpress printing, as the name implies, originally used individual letters (collectively called “type”). Typically, a piece of Anglo/American lead type is a short (.918-inch), thin piece of metal (an alloy of lead,2 antimony, and tin) with the face of a single letter at one end. The typeface is the unique relief design of the letter, cast in reverse.
As you can imagine, if all of the letterpress enthusiasts would fit into a small city, and all of the people who print using old lead type might fit into a small town, then the people who still make that type are exceedingly rare.
If you were to gather up all of the typecastors3 in the world, you would be hard-pressed to fill a lecture hall with them. Some estimates put the number of typecastors at between fifty and one hundred worldwide, maybe a little more. But here we are talking only about people who can cast metal type using existing machines (“typecasters”) that are fitted with the existing dies to make different letters. These typecastors generally do the work as a hobby, and use machines salvaged from local printing offices that have gone out of business. An even smaller number of those own and operate industrial typecasters, machines that, unlike those once used by local printers, can produce large quantities of high-quality “foundry” type.
Of that small number of castors, if you were going to gather the people skilled enough to make the brass die used for casting type (called a “matrix”) for a totally new typeface, you would probably be able to fill one (maybe two) 1993 Subaru wagons.
Theo Rehak is one of these people.
I visited Theo at his type foundry in central New Jersey. The foundry is located in a medium-size purpose-built brown building behind an older, nondescript ranch house of about the same size. It sits off a state highway, surrounded by big-box stores and vacant-looking low-density industrial parks. The lawn that Theo mows is guarded by a residential-grade chain-link fence, to keep the robbers out, and the grass comes right up to the edge of the highway as gleaming Honda SUVs race by.
In the early 1970s, Theo founded an arts-and-crafts guild inspired by the craft movements of the late-
Victorian era—and especially by the work of art printer (and socialist) William Morris, as well as by
J. R. R. Tolkien’s novelistic depictions of a preindustrial world. Theo felt it was a social responsibility to try to preserve lost crafts. As he describes it, everyone in his nascent guild divvied up the “good crafts,” like pottery and metalwork, and he got stuck with letterpress printing because no one else wanted to do it.
The group was called the Dale Guild Society for Medieval Arts and Crafts. After becoming the resident printer, Theo discovered that getting really good type for his press was difficult, and because he lived in New Jersey he started hanging around the American Type Founders company, in its time the General Motors of type founding. As he describes it, “It was a dark, mysterious place that smelled of metal oxides and hot iron.” But even though ATF was still a significant producer of lead type, the industry itself was dying. Once Theo was in the building and saw the state of the company, he made an important decision.
In April of 1980 he got a job at ATF—the last man ever hired there—and set about doing the strangest thing anyone there had ever seen. He set about learning every craft and skill in the entire plant.
By 1993 ATF was bankrupt, the plant was auctioned off, and Theo Rehak was practically the only person on the planet who knew how ATF actually worked. ATF had had a monopoly for so long, and as it presided over the art at the moment of the art’s death, its industrial secrets were almost unique.
This was not a company that had one or two simple machines producing small assortments of type for a local printer. ATF was one of the last major industrial type foundries in the world. It had machines that could make new matrices from new designs, and it had typecasting machines that could cast type that was harder, more durable, and more precise than anything the average typecastor might keep in his garage.
Theo bought (or in some cases “liberated”) these key pieces of equipment from ATF and moved them to the Dale Guild facility behind his home. Theo’s life’s work has been to preserve an entire corporation and all of its key processes.
Because of the skills he acquired, and because of the equipment he saved, Theo and the Dale Guild went on to supply type to some of the finest printing operations in the world, ascending to such prominence that in the late 1990s the Toppan Printing Museum in Tokyo commissioned him to cut and cast new matrices for Johannes Gutenberg’s original Bible typeface. The so-called B-42 typeface—named for Gutenberg’s famous forty-two-line Bible—is a legendary achievement in the typecasting world.5
And so while there are other important American typecastors, Theo is unique among them. There is a great and massive inverted pyramid of history whose tip rests gingerly on his skull.
Herewith, a brief description of this pyramid of history.
It is an old printers’ saying that printing is “the art preservative of all other arts.”6 It is generally accepted that printing is an art in its own right, but also that it contains and preserves the core elements of the other arts. Sheet music is printed, the scripts of plays are printed, poetry and prose are printed, visual art is reproduced through printing. But even more than preserving the objects of art, it is through printing that the techniques supporting art are preserved and that the analysis of art is preserved. Printing is paradoxical in this way: while finitely bound, it contains infinities.
Since Gutenberg, printing has been recognized as a transformative invention in world history. However, the printing press as such was not the key great invention.
Before Gutenberg, text was printed, but it was carved onto one big block of wood. The wood was not durable, and this method necessitated carving a new block for each text. Gutenberg and his contemporaries created movable type made of lead. It is the flexibility of movable type—literally, the production of millions of individual metal letters that can be arranged and rearranged into thousands of different page forms—that allows printing to contain infinities.
To understand what Theo is preserving, we need to pause here and think about how all of this type is made. Gutenberg and his successors cut model letters onto the end of a steel shank (called a “punch”). The raised letter on the punch was then driven into a piece of copper or brass (called a “planchet”) in order to make the matrix. The typecastor would hold the matrix in one hand, and with his other he would ladle molten lead alloy into the mold with the letter-shaped cavity. Once the metal hardened, the mold (which was made of two halves that locked together) would come apart, and the letter would emerge.
This method of hand-casting type persisted for centuries and established four main printing crafts. First, there was the punchcutter. Then there was the typecastor, who cast individual pieces of type from the matrix. Third, there was the compositor, who arranged the pieces of type and locked them into forms. Finally, there was the pressman, who put the forms into the printing press, which then printed the text onto paper.7
After over three hundred years of this status quo, these crafts were demolished in quick succession.
The first craft to take a hit was typecasting. Just before the Civil War, the Bruce Foundry introduced its pivotal typecasting machines. This automation of the casting process fed American newspapers’ ever-growing demand for type.
Next to go was compositing. In 1884, a man named Ottmar Mergenthaler invented a machine called the Linotype (so named because it could cast a “line o’ type”), which cast type automatically in lines that could then be made into a form, locked up, and printed with.
Because the Linotype could be used within the print shop, it was a huge threat to the established type-founders who relied on casting individual letters (by machine or, for some, still by hand) to be sold to print shops. But Mergenthaler was held back from fully industrializing the trade by one final bottleneck—the human punchcutter.
When you cast hand-set type, you need only one matrix for each letter. Then you can start up your casting machine and make as many, say, N’s or X’s as you want. Even though punchcutting was laborious and expensive, typefounders weren’t overwhelmed. However, with a Linotype, each letter in a single line required its own matrix.
Say, for example, you wanted to set the line Mary had a little lamb, its fleece was white as snow. The Linotype sets an entire line of matrices at once and casts the result, so it requires a matrix for each of the letters in the line, including the duplicates. Each lowercase a, for example, would require a matrix (that’s six). Each lowercase e (there are five) would likewise require a matrix. And so on. Take any line in this article and add up each instance of each letter, and you start to see the magnitude of the problem. It’s hard enough to set text with type, but at least the type is cast from a matrix and, therefore, is relatively cheap. However, the matrix itself is handmade, and there was no system for mass-producing them.
Compounding the matter, the matrices wore out quickly and weren’t always properly maintained, requiring frequent replacement. But newspapers wanted to lay off their expensive compositing departments, and they wanted a machine like the Linotype on which they could reuse type (the Linotype could melt down its own used type to be used again and again, whereas foundry type could only be returned to the foundry for a small discount on new type). Demand for Mergenthaler’s Linotype was huge, and opened up the field of automatic casting and compositing equipment for use in print shops.
But it was as though Mergenthaler had invented the safety razor without first securing a steady supply of blades. He realized that in order to meet the demand for all of these new machines, he would need to hire every punchcutter on the planet to make the matrices required.
By happenstance, the Linotype engineers heard about a machine called the Benton engraver, which had been invented in 1885 in Wisconsin by Linn Boyd Benton.
Patricia Cost8 has written the definitive (and, I think, the only) full-length history of Benton and how he changed the type-founding world. Benton was a mechanical genius9 who never went to college. As Theo says, “He was one of those unique individuals who could see with his hands.”
Benton invented a machine precise enough to engrave individual punches for making new matrices. (He later modified this machine to engrave matrices directly into brass planchets.) He also engineered the machine to automatically scale larger and smaller matrices based on a single engraving pattern (a technique called “optical scaling,” which, amazingly, still can’t be easily replicated using computer-driven mathematics).10 The Benton engraver took most of the craft skills associated with punchcutting and encoded them into a single machine.
When the mechanical advancements of the Linotype were combined with the advancements of the Benton engraver, the entire type-founding industry was turned upside down.
It was because of this turmoil that the American Type Founders company was formed. As the Linotype locked more and more deals with regional newspapers, regional type foundries lost business. By 1892, twenty-three of the largest type foundries in the country (including Linn Boyd Benton’s) conglomerated into the American Type Founders company. But who was left to sell type to? At first, it sold to printing operations that could not afford a Linotype (or any of its line-casting successors). But soon ATF developed a new survival strategy. While the Linotype used slightly substandard copies of Benton engravers to produce huge quantities of the same typeface, ATF called back all of the original Benton engravers, hired a large art department, and used the engraving system to quickly produce a huge number of different faces, all with an infinite variety of weights and proportions. This strategy effectively invented the “typeface family”11—ATF churned out not just Century (designed by Linn Boyd Benton), for example, but a whole series of variants, including Century Expanded, Century Old Style, Century Schoolbook (the first “scientifically designed” typeface, famous as the typeface used in Dick and Jane), and all of the bold, condensed, and italic variations thereof. Benton’s department designed hundreds of new faces (and their variants) in this way, and found type to fit a panoply of precise needs.12
ATF’s novelty typefaces were sold to advertising agencies, and to thousands of small-town printers who wanted to stand out. While the Linotype could steal faces at a reasonable rate, it had a difficult time matching the sheer volume of new typefaces coming from Benton’s art department. This, in effect, split the industry in two: on one side was ATF and the few remaining foundries producing hand-set type, and on the other was a whole new industry of line-casting machine companies, led by the Linotype.
ATF grew into this new world, and though the hand-setting industry was threatened by the line-casters, ATF thrived for a while. The next forty years were a kind of golden age for type, even though the industry was in turmoil. By the turn of the last century, ATF commanded 85 percent of the U.S. hand-set-type market, and was one of the largest employers east of the Mississippi. By the 1920s, after a program of intense diversification, ATF was the single largest supplier of printing equipment and supplies in the world. ATF employed more than two thousand people.
At this point, punchcutting as an individual craft had practically disappeared in America. Type was almost never cast by hand. Hand compositing was dying, and by World War II,13 technical innovations like offset printing were pulling apart the entire letterpress-printing business. ATF was one of the last places in the world to hold on to even the memory of these crafts.14 Therefore, much of the history of the craft of printing, the art preservative, was itself preserved throughout the twentieth century by ATF, the late-nineteenth-century conglomerate that Teddy Roosevelt had called “the type trust.”
By 1993, 101 years after its creation, ATF, along with the vast bulk of the letterpress industry, was dead, and its mountains of equipment were being sold to scrappers at a sadly irresponsible auction that threatened to render the industry, even for future historians, virtually extinct.15
Theo was there at the very end, picking up the pieces. He was the artist preservative of the corporation preservative of an important piece of the history of the art preservative. He played this role despite being the follower of a socialist (William Morris) and an avid environmentalist (Tolkien), men who believed in preserving the antique crafts of the Middle Ages, and in preserving the village life that supported and was supported by those crafts.
These men believed that industry presented a great danger to the dignity of the individual. They believed that factories killed art and beauty. Yet here was Theo Rehak, preserving the machines that had replaced the craftsmen.
“If the present is uncomfortable,” Theo said, “and the future is horrific, the only safe place to go is the past.” Those machines, and the craftsmen who ran them at the factory, were the only past left.
As an amateur letterpress printer with a press and a few cabinets of type, I felt the need to drive out and visit Theo, and to see the foundry. I can only describe the impulse as an anxious one: the compulsion to call your mother just to hear her voice, the perverse need to make sure that things are safe, secure.
When I got to the foundry, Theo told me that he would have to leave for a doctor’s appointment later in the day, and that for the last few years he had been struggling with a heart condition.
We were sitting in the Dale Guild Matrix Department, surrounded by heavy machinery, delicate devices for taking extremely precise measurements, and a wide array of finely printed ephemera. Theo was Falstaff in a beige Hawaiian shirt. His hands were on his knees, and he leaned forward slightly as he spoke. “But I’m making a comeback,” he continued, catching my eye as I looked around in wonder and fear. “They put a stent in my heart, and I’ve actually begun cutting the grass again.” I could hear Micah Currier, Theo’s “replacement,”16 packaging fonts of type in the room next door.
After all of my years thinking about Theo, and thinking about the Dale Guild and what it was doing down here, this was how I was introduced to the operation. For the rest of the day, Theo intercut his anecdotes and explanations with references to his failing heart, to the new diet he was on, to his own mortality. The day was suffused with loss.
Theo clearly loved ATF. “It was a fascinating place,” he said. “It was a mysterious place. And when you start thinking about the lineage [coming down from] Gutenberg, it was a very romantic kind of notion to work in a place like that.”
Theo made a point of saying that every job at ATF was sufficient as a life’s work. By Theo’s estimation, a person who worked at ATF “would work rings” around him “because that’s all he did, five days a week, from seven-thirty to four.” This left Theo with a huge paradox: he was trying to preserve a corporation, but he was approaching the corporation by seeing each worker there as an individual craftsman. Here he was, trying to carry on as one man replacing two thousand.
Preserving ATF was even more challenging since each of the workers there was so deeply involved in his craft that no one could do anyone else’s job. As Theo puts it, “You never really paid attention to what [your coworker] did. You were just responsible for what you did.” A man could work side by side with another for twenty, thirty, even forty years, and have no idea what was being done six inches away.
Add to this another of the paradoxes of ATF, which was that each of these craftsmen was so deeply embedded in his own work that he had lost the ability to appreciate it. “One of the prerequisites for being hired by ATF,” Theo joked, “was an aversion to and hatred for type. I’d come up to a guy like Lowell—Mr. Craft—and I’d say, ‘What are you casting today?’ and he’d say, ‘Little square things! Get outta my aisle!’”
The complexity of these working conditions is best understood in the context of Theo’s story about how he got his job at ATF.
Theo had been going to ATF off and on to buy type directly. The factory had no real commercial front, but Theo had gotten to know George R. Gasparik, who managed the plant, by way of these occasional purchases. Theo was at this time also trying to figure out how to make matrices. He had a friend who had an engraving company with Gorton engravers, and, using the engravers, Theo made a 14-point parenthesis.
“I was very proud of it,” Theo said, grinning. One day, George asked him, “‘Well, what’s new,’ you know?” Theo showed him his crude matrix. George looked at the matrix and said, “Come with me. I want you to meet someone.”
ATF was already deep in financial difficulty, and much of its workforce was gone. George was having trouble with the head of the Engraving Department (who was also the only member of that department), a man named William Gregan.
Theo paused in his memory of Willy Gregan. “Wonderful man—never finished high school. He was always upset about that. He considered himself uneducated, but here he was handling the math, the polynomials for the [Benton] engraver. He was a wonderful teacher.”
Theo had been brought in as a pawn in a petty power struggle. Gregan, at that time the last Benton engraver operator in the world, had been staging a one-man work slowdown in protest over changes to his retirement plan. Encompassed in this story are all the elements of the grandeur and ambivalence of ATF. By bringing in Theo with his crude little matrix, George was saying to Willy that even he could be replaced. It was for this reason that Theo was hired, and for this reason that Gregan was directed to train him as a Benton engraver operator.
Theo said that after working at ATF for a few months, “I could see in Mr. Gregan a relief, almost. He wasn’t gonna be the last Benton engraver operator. He wasn’t gonna be, like, the last dinosaur.”
It was 1980, and Theo was thirty-four.
For the next thirteen years, Theo spent his days working at ATF, trying to persuade all of his coworkers to reveal their secrets to him, and his nights and weekends setting up his own foundry with equipment from the factory. It was as though a museum’s-worth of machines and the skills to run them were being destroyed in a slow-motion fire, from which Theo was carefully retrieving everything he could.
Theo saved the Engraving Department, he saved the Barth typecasters (which are still some of the best industrial typecasting machines in the world), and he saved hundreds of suites of matrices and other equipment. Most important, he saved the skills and procedures that keep it all working together.
But as it had been for his predecessors at ATF, Theo’s relationship to his own craft is complex. “The thing is,” he said to me, “you have to be good enough to be passable. Good enough to get by. I had to be a faker, and a pretender.”
I could see that Theo felt the weight of ATF on his shoulders. “I’m a poor representative of what a type founder should be,” he said, sadly. “I get by. I always considered myself a steward. The equipment is on loan to me, and one of the things that I hope I’m remembered for is that I didn’t do it any harm. It didn’t die in my hands. I passed it on. It’s like a surgeon. You’re supposed to go in, fix it, don’t do any more damage, and leave.”
Micah Currier lives in Brooklyn and commutes to New Jersey to learn everything he can from Theo. He virtually lives at the foundry, usually spending five days at a stretch before going back home. In what used to be the pressroom, where Micah packages fonts, there is a spartan sleeping area consisting of a futon and what appears to be an olive-colored sleeping bag.
“I was aware of the Dale Guild prior to moving to New York,” Micah said, “[and] hoped that I would get involved with it.” It was Andy Birsh, the owner of Woodside Press (a traditional letterpress-printing company in Brooklyn), who introduced Micah to Theo. Theo and Andy were old friends, and through that contact Micah sent Theo an email about a possible apprenticeship.
Unfortunately, after 9/11Theo lost the impetus to keep the foundry running. Orders had dropped off dramatically. “It was like learning to live with a lowered heart rate,” Theo said of the time. And then, just as orders fell off, the Chinese cornered the strategic-materials market. Prices for tin and antimony practically doubled. “The Chinese are great,” Theo said wryly. “They figured out how to win the war without a shot being fired.”
By the time Micah came calling, at the end of the decade, Theo was ready to chuck the whole operation. His cash flow was low, with only a small number of regular customers, his expenses were high, and on top of everything else his heart was failing. He was ready to sink the whole foundry out in the Atlantic. He was going to get a friend to load up a barge, and together they were going to topple everything into the ocean.
For more than a year, Micah emailed Theo, called him, came down for visits. Theo refused to train him. “I never actually got my hands on a machine,” Micah said.
But in 2009, Micah accompanied one of Theo’s clients, Dan Morris, who works at Cooper Union, to let him come along when Dan came down to New Jersey to pull the matrices for a job he wanted Theo to cast for him. “I knew there was going to be casting going on,” Micah said of the visit. “So I asked, ‘Could I help?’
“I remember just kind of sitting out in the shop,” Micah said of the first day of the job. Theo was asleep, while Micah (having in his excitement arrived extremely early in the morning) sat out in the foundry. Theo came out an hour and a half later. They lit off the machine and started casting type.
“I guess he had decided he was going to train me in the ATF style,” Micah said. “He was going to show me once and that’s it.
“It worked out. The machine I worked on is one of the toughest machines to run in the shop, but by the third or fourth day he was pretty much just having me do everything.”
And in that way, the foundry was saved.
While there is a note of triumph to this tale, I was still weighed down by anxiety. For every piece of equipment still in the shop, how many were gone? And for every thread of knowledge Theo had preserved, and for every fragment passed on to Micah, how much died with the men from ATF?
Reflecting the ambivalence of many of the men who worked there, the ATF auction in 1993 was set up as a standard industrial auction, even though what was being sold was not just a run-of-the-mill tool-and-die shop. As Gregory Walters describes it in his pamphlet, the Smithsonian and major universities were bidding alongside large-scale scrapping operations, as well as collectors and enthusiasts like Theo. And while Theo had the necessary inside information to preserve key pieces of equipment, the vast majority of the material was either scattered among different buyers or lost entirely.17
As nervous as I was curious, I asked Micah about the Cooper Union job. “What was the type you cast for that job?”
“Twelve-point Garamond,” he replied.
My anxiety was partly inspired by the fact that I had been working out a deal with Micah in which he would be casting some Caslon Old Style for me, which I wanted in 12-point. However, it turned out the Dale Guild didn’t have the 12-point matrices. (Rich Hopkins, another typecastor who generally casts only for himself and friends, has most of the Caslon.) I had to settle for 14-point. In many ways, for what the Dale Guild preserves, it’s still operating under such constraints that it’s as if the letterpress community were digging through salvage rather than actually continuing on with a working foundry. As Micah put it, “[Most] people think you have to search and find that one case of 12-point Cheltenham Old Style that has a nice amount that you can use. It may not be the typeface you want, but it’s the only full case you can find that’s a body size.”
When he said this, I laughed and said, “That’s exactly how I ended up with my 10-point Century Old Style. It was a quantity on eBay.”
I have enough Century Old Style to set about one thousand, maybe twelve hundred, words. In the old days, this would have been a childishly small amount of type for printing a book. These days, for a hobbyist printer, it’s a mammoth amount. It’s more than twenty pounds of type,18 and yet it wouldn’t be enough to set even the first section of this article.
Micah nodded, but then he dropped a small bombshell on me. “The mats19 don’t exist anymore.”
“The mats don’t exist for any of it?” I asked.
“No. Century is all gone.” He could see my face go pale, I think, because he added, “There was some that did exist… but I don’t know what happened with those mats—they’re gone.”
Apparently, most of the mid-range faces were destroyed after the 1993 auction. Scrappers bought the matrices to melt down for the brass, and the few museums and collectors who were there couldn’t afford to save them, because they were focused on saving more idiosyncratic or famous faces, like Parsons and Goudy. The Century family was, at one time, the single most popular newspaper face in the world, and its ubiquity is in part what consigned it to the scrap-metal furnace.
“And a tremendous amount of stuff,” Micah said, “is at the Smithsonian.” Besides the scrappers and the collectors, the Smithsonian was a major buyer of mats as ATF fell apart. But in 2003 the Hall of Printing and Graphic Arts was closed, and its contents were put into storage. Something like a third of all the mats from ATF are now in storage.
Micah continued, “I was very concerned about it at first. I knew somebody who had a huge ATF mat collection that went to a collector in Belgium, and when that happened it just felt like a body-blow to the whole foundry.”
Now, however, his priorities have changed. “I really want to push the idea of the book,” Micah said to me, “of truly beautiful objects being made. The Morrisian idea that the book can be like a church, like a temple for the soul.
I want to be engraving new proprietary typefaces for people who will then make books with them. All the great private presses had their own typefaces, and in this day and age I don’t think people understand that that’s a viable option. That’s a lot more interesting to me than just casting a face that’s been produced ad nauseam.”
But as he unfolded his dreams, all I could see, in my mind’s eye, was the image of scrappers in forklifts dumping out huge oak cabinets of brass mats, the mats scattering across the old foundry floor like dollhouse-size gold ingots, each with a cyclopean letter staring up from one end, the faces intermingling, all of the work, the meaning, lost.
What does it mean to preserve a thing? What is the art preservative?
Of the hundreds of Barth casters and the “sea of pivotals” at ATF, Theo saved about two dozen machines. He specifically saved sixteen Barth Casters: one 6-point machine, one 8-point, two 10-point, two 12-point, three 14-point, one 16-point, three 18-point, and two 24-point machines (all the machines necessary to cast a good run of diverse sizes for book-work).
Theo also saved the machines necessary to run Benton’s Matrix-
Engraving Department. Of the seven known Benton engravers in the world, Theo owns two; the Dale Guild is one of only two20 shops still cutting new matrices with them, and is the only place left with the equipment Benton designed to precisely maintain and calibrate the engravers.
Theo wrote an excellent social history about the people he met and worked with for thirteen years, called The Fall of ATF: A Serio-Comedic Tragedy. (You can buy a copy from him on eBay.) He also wrote a textbook, Practical Typecasting, which records much of the ephemeral network of skills that were his real preservation task, beyond the equipment he saved. He also gave invaluable assistance to Cost in the writing of The Bentons. And, by god, he’s training his replacement to carry on as much of all this as any man can.
Cost captured a useful quote that also pertains to Theo: “The Benton system is perhaps the most thorough and accurate way of producing matrices for type designs that has ever been devised. The engraving machine itself is but one of five infinitely precise components. Properly adjusted and maintained, the measuring microscope, fitting machine, cutter grinding device, and the Barth Automatic Typecasting Machine, enhanced with many Benton-
engineered patented improvements, combine to create the finest type in the world.”
It’s the phrase “properly adjusted and maintained” that troubles me so much. I know Theo is handling this problem, and that he is training Micah to handle this problem, and yet being in the foundry fills me with a kind of creeping dread.
Theo preserved the entire Benton system, the whole ATF system. There are a lot of people who bought Benton engravers and Barth casters at the auction, but Theo ended up with all the tools that supported the Benton engraver, the equipment that knits the pieces together. And he preserved the knowledge that knits all of that equipment together. There is an ineffable wholeness to his project that is both awe-inspiring and terrifying in equal measure.
In agreement with this basic thesis, Theo and Micah offered the example of the Type Museum in England, which had bought out the entire Stephenson & Blake type foundry. “They have ‘things,’” Theo noted sadly, “but no one knows how to put them together, and they couldn’t make a piece of type if they wanted to.”
“You can’t even look at it anymore,” Micah offered, “because it’s—”
“—all stored away,” Theo finished.
“It’s all stored away.” Micah nodded.
“It’s incomplete. It’s like a puzzle with six pieces missing.” Theo shook his head.
It’s staggering to consider, but even if a museum buys out the whole factory—every bolt, every screw, every desk and machine, even the dust on the floor—it still isn’t enough. The Smithsonian and the Type Museum prove the failure of storage alone as sufficient for preservation.
Is it even enough to preserve skills along with the equipment? Every step along the way opens up more and more skills that need to be preserved, skills that can be only partially preserved. As Theo says, every task in the foundry is rich enough to be one person’s life’s work. Micah wishes he had an advertising department, a shipping department, and on and on.
Whatever Theo and Micah may want, they aren’t a two-thousand-person corporation, and this isn’t the 1930s, and there aren’t thousands and thousands of buyers for type. So what was I looking for? I had seen the shop. I had seen it all run, and I was satisfied that it was being cared for. But my worry had metastasized into something else, something bigger.
My brain was bending around the problem, trying to pin down the totality of it to a single moment, a single idea. I wanted so much to fix these ideas into a single image, cast and solid. But the rituals of typecasting felt like a wake, the foundry felt like an elaborate mechanical tombstone. No matter how many times the ritual was performed, and no matter how refined the performance, all it could do was remind me of what was missing, what had already been lost. Type founding persisted, even though the world of type founding had died.
Was this preservation?
The compulsion to preserve can fall victim to an atavistic pack-ratting of details, both conceptual and physical. Instead, there must be something else, a way to understand preservation that goes beyond the accountant’s tally. Theodore De Vinne, in The Invention of Printing,21 said this about the art preservative:
This distinction rightfully belongs to Typography only. The theory upon which this method is based is that of the independence of each character, and of the mutual dependence of all its characters. Every character is a separate and movable type, so made that it can be arranged with others in an endless variety of combinations. The types used for this page are used for other pages in this book; they can be re-arranged for use in the printing of many other books or pamphlets; they cease to serve only when they are worn out. All other methods of printing require, at the outset, the engraving on one piece of wood or metal of all the letters or parts of a design, which, when once combined, cannot be separated; they can be applied only to the object for which they were first made.
Here, De Vinne gets close to what we really mean when we talk about preservation. He describes a struggle between the desire to have one complete image, fixed and holistic, or thousands of tiny pieces that aren’t fixed, but are instead ordered by a process.
More than the Barth caster or the Benton engraver, it is Theo and Micah’s love of type that is preservative. Like the men who became books in Fahrenheit 451, Theo and Micah were incanting type in the darkness.
I had misunderstood this project of preservation as reaching toward an unattainable completeness. Preservation was embedded not just in Micah and Theo’s respect for the past, but also carefully described in Micah’s hopes for the future of the foundry, and Micah’s hope of making new type. Even now, Micah is working with the book artist and type-designer Russell Maret to bring wholly new type designs to market—type that will be designed for the Benton system and produced on Barth typecasters.
This leaves me thinking about my little case of Century. I can never buy new foundry-cast Century, and I will always be left to salvage what I can from old shops. I will never have enough. But what is “enough” in this context? If I am skilled, I can set an infinite number of texts of an infinite number of lengths with my finite little case of type. Preservation isn’t about collecting old things; it is about discerning what is essential in the old ways, and carrying that essential idea forward. When skill and equipment are harnessed to an idea that lives on in the heart, we can creatively react against limits; we can transcend limits.
We are all living with less, in a diminished world. But there is still an infinity inside of this small space.
When asked about being the new “owner” of the Dale Guild, Micah said, “I don’t look at it as an ownership thing. You can’t own this kind of stuff. It doesn’t make sense. It seems so petty and redundant.”
Theo said this about his time at ATF: “I was only supposed to stay there for a year, you know, as a sort of industrial spy. Unfortunately, I stayed too long. There’s a wonderful folk song, and the lines of it run, ‘I came here to steal her money, take her rings and run. But I fell in love with the lady, I got away with none.’”