Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Impressions of Christmas

Long ago in the late Sixties I became the Master of Wilson College at Princeton.  The grandiose title was more misleading than most.  Wilson College was a monument of social engineering, an “alternative” residential and dining facility designed by college administrators for students who rejected, with greater or lesser political vehemence, the old system of private, selective dining clubs on Prospect Street, a relic of the age of F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Wilson College was a club, that is, for people who hated clubs.  Being its Master was roughly like being the Chief Whip of the International Anarchist Congress. 
Several of the most enriching relationships of my life date from that period, which witnessed large strides in the more unconventional aspects of my education, including some practical ones.  For instance: we mounted numerous “events,” many of which we advertised with printed posters.  Printing costs were shockingly high.  Some students suggested we make posters ourselves in the sadly underused University typography studio.  The rest is history.  I became hooked on letterpress printing—its history, its products, and above all its practice.

A Vandercook Proving Machine with a poster-sized form on its bed

For my birthday in 1970 my wife bought me a very imaginative gift: a sixteen hundred pound flatbed Vandercook press (proving machine).  She had found this, by methods unrevealed, at what I must describe as a printing equipment morgue in Camden, New Jersey.  If this place was not a Mafia front, its proprietors deserved to be prosecuted for false pretenses.  They cannot possibly have made a living from selling the superannuated machinery occupying a couple of acres of New Jersey urban blight.  But that was not my problem.  My problem was that I had to take a truck down to Camden, load the press, transport it, and then get it up the front stairs of a large Victorian house on University Place, Princeton.
The great age of the Vandercook Press overlapped with the origins of commercial offset lithography.  The Vandercook Proving Machine was designed to produce a single very high quality sheet that could then be photographed.  My particularly beautiful press had been retired probably about 1955, since which time it had been gathering dust in Mr. Carbone’s warehouse.  With an act of terminal piety its operator had run the roller unprotected over the last form to be worked on—a somewhat ghoulish ecclesiastical poster, perfectly preserved on the ancient make-ready:
Thus began our Pilgrim Press.  And as one thing leads to another, I spent the next decade or so expanding its holdings: four more presses, several tons of old foundry type, gorgeous old printing cabinets and composing stones, and a large quantity of the miscellaneous beautiful old steel, brass, and polished wood implements that were the accoutrements of letterpress printing.   I do most of my printing these days on one of two identical, superbly maintained 14” Chandler and Price clam-shell jobbing presses.
A Chandler and Price clamshell press

The history of our printing adventures, the last chapter of which has not yet been written, might on another occasion make an appropriate subject of a weekly essay.  I raise it now in the context of wishing a very happy holiday season to all my readers.  There seems to be a surprisingly large number of them, surprisingly scattered across the globe.  I cannot send each of you one of my printed greetings cards; but please be assured of my best wishes.  The holiday I celebrate is the Nativity of Our Lord, commonly known as Christmas; and therefore I send you Christmas greetings.  For you it may be Hannukah, the Solstice, or simply the midwinter semester break.  Whatever it may be, let it be for you filled with peace and plenty.  Our world is sufficiently needy to absorb the most ecumenical spectrum of benign wishes.  So whether your thing be Baskerville or Bodoni, God bless you.
The annual Printing of the Christmas Card falls somewhere between a ritual and an ordeal in this household.  The ordeal part is entirely a function of my sloth.  There is no reason, in principle, why a Christmas card could not be printed in the leisure of a summer afternoon.  Certainly nothing would forbid its being printed on a sunny Saturday in October.  In fact, however, the Iron Law of Procrastination determines that the project cannot even be begun before December 15.  Otherwise it cannot compete with all the other postponed non-negotiable Christmas preparations—getting the tree, excavating in the crawl-space for the decorative lights, baking the cookies, cutting the firewood, et caetera.  I do have a fallback position.  Years ago I had a line etching made from a Renaissance woodcut of Saint Anthony Abbot, alias Anthony of the Desert.  This able ascetic is most helpful to procrastinating printers, among others, for his feast day is January 17.  Even when I default on Christmas, I can usually get a card done by then.