Last week, I had the pleasure of showing some fourth grade students—lots of and lots of fourth grade students, actually—how to use a letterpress machine. As part of a daylong event called Science in the National Parks, several area artists and scientists put on demonstrations for the students who visited with their families and on class trips. Since, in Philadelphia, much of the national park is comprised of urban historical sites, the event took place right downtown, in the courtyard behind the building where Benjamin Franklin had his print shop. (They call it Franklin Court, but I can’t help but think of it as Ben Franklin’s backyard.) This is the place where he published The Pennsylvania Gazette and Poor Richard’s Almanack, and it’s a block away from Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed. These two things are connected; without the printing presses of Philadelphia, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense wouldn’t have found its readers—and without his ideas, we might not have had a revolution. The Soapbox Community Print Shop & Zine Library was invited to teach the students something about printmaking, so we carved a linoleum block with a charming design, packed up our tabletop Signmaker press, and spent a sunshiny day in late April helping hundreds of kids pull prints in bright-colored ink.
Growing up in Philadelphia, you hear a lot about Ben Franklin. He was one of our country’s founding fathers, of course, but he also started a lot of important stuff right here in Philly, like the University of Pennsylvania, where I went to school, and The Library Company of Philadelphia. His name is on everything—like the Ben Franklin Bridge and the beautiful Ben Franklin Parkway—and his image is everywhere, from commissioned statues (including this one, which commemorates his work as a printer) to the sign attached to a disused water tower advertising the Electric Factory, a concert venue where I’ve spent many hours of my life having my hearing damaged by bands I loved. Several years ago, I visited a friend who lives on the West Coast, and we made a road trip down the coast of Oregon. When we stopped in the small, picturesque town of McMinnville for breakfast, I was startled to see a bronze statue of Ben Franklin sitting on a park bench—a lot like the one on Penn’s campus—and I joked that I couldn’t get away from the guy.
Even still, this know-it-all Philadelphian found spending time in the space where he once worked surprisingly stirring. All day long we told the students a very abbreviated version of the story of what went on inside Franklin’s print shop, and showed them how to use a printing press that operates using the same principles as the one he used. We asked them to consider how difficult and time-consuming it would have been to place every letter of a sentence—and paragraph, page, newspaper, or book—one at a time in order to print it … and not only that, but you had to spell them backward! We helped each kid ink up the block and pull the metal bar across the press bed, applying the pressure that would print the image onto the page. They smiled brightly each time we peeled the paper back to reveal the picture they had made. Mechanical reproduction of this kind produces results that are reliably consistent, of course, and yet no two prints are ever exactly the same. Most of the kids kept a close watch on the prints as they dried on the table because they wanted to be sure they took home the one they themselves had printed. In the 15th century, the invention of the printing press took written communication a step away from the intimacy of handwriting, but today, these old-fashioned printing technologies show the artist’s hand in a way that digital communications can’t. (Not yet, at least.)
The Soapbox is proud to participate in a long tradition of printing in the city where Ben Franklin worked, a city with a rich and colorful—and incendiary—publishing history. If you get the chance to use a letterpress printer, take it. There’s a power in printing your work with your own hands—in pulling that heavy metal contraption over the words and images you placed there—that you can really feel.