The Williamson Haffner Engraving Company was located in Denver, Colorado. They were in operation in the late 19th and early 20th century, producing advertising blocks for local companies and printing post cards and tourist books showing the sights of Colorado. Publications from the company are relatively rare. Even more rare are blocks from the company. Years ago, I was lucky enough to be given one of these blocks. It depicts a man tending a fire on a camp stove. The camp consists of two canvas tents, which might indicate that the block was for a tent and awning company (something we are still researching). Recently, I printed the block and hand tinted the print, as it might have been when the block was first printed. I chose to tint the print as though it was fall, giving a bit more color to the scene. I am so happy to have this block. It is a wonderful - and beautiful - piece of history.
One of the joys of what we do is to recreate bits of history. This block is a great example of this. The print block dates from the Spanish American War. At about 10 inches tall, it is likely that this block was used for recruiting posters. When we printed this block, we did one other thing that would have been done back in the day - hand tint the print.
Before full color printing was common, prints were sometimes colored by hand. This would have been very common for recruitment posters. After all, on a poster like this, you want a bit of color to attract attention. So, after printing this block, I hand tinted the print using gouache paints, in the same way it would have been in the late 19th century. The result is a bit of history - the print of a recruit ready to go to Cuba with the likes of Teddy Roosevelt and the Congress of the Rough Riders.
What a Weekend
This past weekend, Prairie Printing participated in Nic Fest, a major arts event held in Casper that draws exhibitors and visitors from across the west. This was also our first major - get to know us, this is who we are - event. Needless to say, we were a bit nervous. There were a lot of things to bring together. Not only was this our first event, meaning it was all new, we also had to move and set up our Reliance press, a Hamilton type cabinet (with trays of type), a desk to work at, and bookcase for displaying our work. But, to our relief, everything came together beautifully. We want to extend a special thanks to Magic City Stoves, who made available a forklift and operator to transport our press to and from the event. Most heartening, though, was that the response of the guests to our booth, and our mission to preserve letterpress equipment and teach the next generation letterpress printing. It was beyond encouraging - beyond what we could expect.
Inspiring the Next Generation of Printers
I started Prairie Printing as my way of keeping the art of, and enthusiasm for, letterpress printing alive. My goal in participating in Nic Fest was to, in some way, create an enthusiasm for printing. I got my first press when I was nine and, as soon as I pulled my first impression, I was in love with printing. I wanted to recreate this experience for the guests to our booth, so I first set a simple business card with our name, city and web address, in the chase of a 3 x 2 Sigwalt press. I calibrated the Reliance to print this card - making sure the backing was appropriate and the chase was centered on the Reliance bed, ensuring a good, crisp print. But everything else was done by the guests to our booth.
When a guest came to our booth, I would, of course, talk to them about printing. I love talking about printing. I would tell them about what we do, how we rescue presses, tell them the history of our press, show them the prints we make and sell, and answer any questions. Typically, their first question was about the press itself. As a piece of equipment, it is eye catching, and a bit imposing. With its gold lettering and polished wood handle, it is as much a piece of equipment as it is a work of art. Sometimes, a guest would ask for a card. My response was - I do have a card, or you can print one. Almost everyone said they wanted to print their own. Because the type was set and the chase set up for printing, it only took about 2 minutes. I would instruct them on how to ink the brayer, how to use the brayer to ink the type, set the paper and then pull the impression. And the reaction was amazing. Kids beamed a smile when they saw the impression. Parents took videos. A few older guests, whose fathers or grandfathers were printers, thanked me because they got to do what their fathers or grandfathers did. One guest was so excited, he gave me high five. Just proves what I knew before - everyone loves printing, most people just don’t know it yet.
A guest to Prairie Printing’s booth gets ready to ink the type in preparation to pull an impression of our card. I am explaining why we ink on a bias, and why we ink in two directions.
Must of worked. He seems happy.
Training a new generation of printers!
All in all, Nic Fest was an amazing event! First and foremost, it was fantastic just to be able demonstrate printing. We so often work in our workshops so to take printing out into the world, so to speak, was a unique opportunity. With the press there, doing live printing, we could show guests not only what we print, which is good, but also how we print. The smiles we got, and the comments we received, meant that, in our goal of getting people interested in printing, we were successful. It’s been almost a week, and I am still grinning (and putting stuff away) but grinning.
Recently we were given three original WWI print blocks. One is a WWI-era British tank. The second is of a Sammie, the term for a WWI American soldier. The third, and my favorite, depicts a WWI camp scene with canvas camp tents, a cannon, 48 star flag (you can tell that the flag is 48 star because of the symmetry of the stars) and, flying overhead, a biplane. Last Saturday, we printed the camp scene block, maybe for the first time 100 years. This is why we do what we do - to preserve bits of history like this.
Prairie Printing is a Wyoming-based non-profit formed to preserve the art, craft and equipment of letterpress printing. We do this by actively rescuing and restoring letterpress equipment, teaching classes on letterpress printing and, as we can, making our equipment available for use without cost. Why do we do this? - Simple - we feel strongly that the art, craft, skill and equipment of letterpress needs to be preserved. To understand why I am so passionate about printing, I’ll tell you my story. It is a bit long, but if you want, here it is.
I made my first print when I was 9, in 1984. That year, for Christmas, when friends were getting video games or the popular toy, my parents got me a Kelsey press, three fonts of type, type cases and some print blocks. This was one of the few Christmas gifts I still remember, perhaps because it was the perfect gift for me.
To their credit, my parents have always known that I am a century behind my time. They also recognized my interest in type design and calligraphy. One of my favorite books was a volume on typography. To, I am sure, the bemusement of my teachers, I sometimes wrote my homework in calligraphy, trying my best to copy medieval styles. I also love seeing old pieces of equipment in operation, which to me are as much function as they are art. Watching a hit or miss engine or one of our presses run is like watching poetry in motion. Putting all these interest together shows how well my parents knew me. Bring together an interest in all things old, a love of mechanical equipment, and an appreciation of type design and calligraphy, and I don’t think they could have given me a better gift than a printing press. Proof of this is that throughout junior and high school, I continued to print, collect blocks, type and even paper. But the next step in my interest in letterpress would come in college.
In my second year at the University of Wyoming, I discovered a new interest closely related to printing – antiquarian books. At that time, there was a used and rare bookstore in Laramie called Adams & Adams. I went there often, but the fateful visit occurred a few days before the beginning of the spring semester of my junior year. On that visit, I saw, in the glass case reserved for the rare and antiquarian books, a 1645 printing of the plays of Terence. It is a beautiful volume, bound in velum with gilt stamped details. I do not know why, but I was taken by this book. I bought it and took it back to my dorm room. Then reality set in. I quickly realized that I needed to properly care this book, but I had no idea about how. To learn more, I first took it to Coe, UW’s main college library, asking for advice. They could offer little help and directed me to the Toppan, UW’s rare books library. So I went to the Toppan and showed my new book to the librarian. Not only did she tell me about the book and how to care for it, she told that she was teaching a class on book history and said that, if I was interested, there was one space available. I added the class and learned more about books and printing than I didn’t know I didn’t know. This set in motion a new course of study.
Over the next few years, my interest in rare books grew and overlapped with my interest in printing. I volunteered with the Toppan. I was fortunate enough to be able to spend a year working for Priscilla Juvelis Rare Books, a rare books dealer in Cambridge, Mass. While there, I poured over classic volumes at the Houghton, Harvard’s rare books library. When I returned to UW, I took classes in art history, book arts and other subjects related to the history of printing. I wanted to learn not only how the master printers of past could create such beautiful and timeless volumes, like the ones I had studied at the Houghton and, as I could, collect, but also how I could do the same printing. I wanted to be able to print like the printers of old. However, as I continued to collect presses, type and equipment that could help me print like printers of the past, a realization and focus emerged.
As I acquired letterpress equipment, I would sometimes see presses, or other equipment, available for rescue. In some form or another, these presses are free for pickup or they will be recycled, scrapped or otherwise disposed of. And a few of these, I was able to rescue. At the same time, I also realized that, in many ways, the art of printing was also disappearing. I remember asking one of the few remaining type foundries in the US if they could recreate a typeface that was available in the early 20th century that was, itself, a recreation of a typeface used during the Renaissance. I was told that unless the mats (the form into which the type is cast) were available, they couldn’t make the type because they cannot make the mats. Making type, it seems, was becoming a lost art. The last company making type cases went out of business when the last employee retired. When we restore presses, we often find that parts are impossible to find and often have to be made. And on and on and on. I started to have a desire to not only print, but to preserve the art and equipment of letterpress printing. Then I had an idea - a light bulb moment.
Just before Thanksgiving, 2017, I contacted Casper, Wyoming’s artist guild, Art 321. I told them about my interest in printing, my desire to preserve the art of printing, and I proposed an interesting idea. I said I would place with them one of my presses, an 1895 Reliance hand iron press - beautiful and simple to use. They agreed, and the press was placed with them that weekend. Along with the press, I provided paper, ink, block making tools and other resources. There, the press is free for anyone to use (well almost free as the only fee is just one copy of what is printed for an exhibit wall). This would be, I felt, a good first step, a way to start to the idea of preserving letterpress printing. And throughout 2017 and 2018, this is how our work continued. Then, I took the next step forward.
So Now This
The next step forward. Though I’ve been rescuing presses, teaching printing for years, and loaning equipment since 2017, my work to now has been largely informal. This year, I decided to be more intentional, making my desire to preserving letterpress printing more focused. As one of the first steps, I formed Prairie Printing a Wyoming-based non-profit with a focus on teaching the art letterpress printing and preserving letterpress printing equipment. To our great surprise, we were invited to participate in Nic Fest, a major local art event. At this event, we will be showcasing two of our rescued presses, offer letterpress printed cards for sale, and let guests print their own poster, a piece we are designing for this event. We look forward to a summer of open printing sessions and our next series of classes, which begin this fall. And so it begins.
Well - that’s the story of how an unlikely Christmas present in 1984 becomes, in 2019, Prairie Printing. If you’ve made it this far, thank you for your interest. If you want to learn more about printing or our work, please go the contact page and write us. We would love to hear from you.