The Catholic University of America

Sept. 26, 2007

CUA Acquires Century-Old Printing Press

Lenore Rouse and the printing press newly acquired.

The contraption looks a little like an antique metal sewing machine operated by a foot pedal, only it's about three times bigger and 600 pounds heavier. It's the 107-year-old printing press donated a week ago to Catholic University - the kind that requires one to manually find individual pieces of small metal type for each letter, punctuation mark and space, and assemble them onto a form to be inked and pressed against a sheet of paper.

It's essentially the same typesetting technology that Johannes Gutenberg used to print the first book with moveable type around 1450, and that only started to become obsolete in 1886 with the invention of the Linotype machine.

Having the press will prove valuable for teaching the current generation of CUA students who only know one kind of printing: the offset printing that replaced Linotype in the 1970s and '80s.

"My colleagues and I in Media Studies teach an introductory class called Media and History," says Associate Professor of Media Studies Lisa Gitelman. "Having a printing press on campus will be a way to make learning about print culture more concrete. Just seeing how laborious the composition process is - selecting individual pieces of type and putting them in order - can be eye-opening."

The press, which can print the pages of books, invitations and other jobs with page sizes of 11-by-7 inches or smaller, was donated to the university on Sept. 15 by Bernard Willett of Jericho, N.Y.

"Anyone who wants to understand printing processes before the age of the laser printer can benefit from this tool on campus - that would include library students, graphic art majors and disciplines such as English," says Lenore Rouse, CUA's curator of rare books, who oversaw acquisition of the press.

Some of the tiny metal letters - in this case capital M - that must be assembled to create a page of text on the printing press.
Indeed, professors in CUA's English and media studies departments were especially eager to get the press, partly because a knowledge of printing and the making of books is important to literary and textual analysis. For example, literary scholars in the 1800s couldn't figure out which was the definitive first edition of Shakespeare's plays until they could unravel the intricacies of printing in the 17th century, says Rouse.

In the 1970s and 1980s, many university art departments got rid of their printing presses, but now a lot of universities are wishing they had one again, she says. Letterpress printing [the generic name of the old style of printing] has a lot to offer aesthetically. That's why it's still routinely used to make wedding invitations. The products of such printing look nice and they have a certain cachet that laser printing doesn't.

That cachet - plus the usefulness of such a press in teaching literary and media history - are why some universities are getting such presses again.