Johannes Gutenberg’s 15th century printing of the bible is a masterpiece, the first book published in volume, but he was a business failure. The genius German goldsmith, inventor of the Gutenberg press went into debt and an argument with his business partner doomed the venture.
According to the NPR radio show Planet Money, other printers would get rich printing Papal indulgences.
Indulgences were sold as a way for sinners to avoid punishment in purgatory. The print job was a lot simpler than a book and apparently business was good.
Printing history dates even further in China. Movable clay type came on the scene in 1041 and the earliest complete book is the Buddhist text “Diamond Sutra” from 868.
Printing has since moved from the sacred to the mundane but on the western frontier the sign that a town had made it was the arrival of a newspaper.
On Jan. 15, 1972 Telegram-Tribune reporter/editor Jim Hayes wrote about the museum of printing at Cal Poly.
Shakespeare Press Museum
He hath not fed of the dainties that are bred in a book: he hath not eat paper, as it were; he hath not drunk ink. —Love’s Labour Lost
Printers, truly Shakespeare’s eaters of paper and drinkers of ink, are craftsmen.
Some come honestly by the name artist: the designers of type faces like the 18th century Englishman Caslon and the Italian Bodoni. Surely others, from Hoe, the American inventor of the rotary press, to the computer wizards of the present day, deserve the title engineer.
But, by and large, the men and women who make up the world’s printing industry rightly think of themselves as highly skilled workers — as practitioners of a craft that proudly traces its technological lineage directly to Johan Gutenberg, probably the first European to print with movable type cast in molds.
This lineage tracing is easy: refinements of the printing process, until the recent introduction of electronic gadgetry and photo-composition, came by slow evolution rather than revolution.
Printers, like true craftsmen, are reluctant to forsake tradition. They are surrounded by it: in the processes they use, the tools of their trade, even their language. A pica still is the standard unit of measurement for the width of lines in printing housed from Buffalo to Bangkok and Beirut by the bye; pied type is a jumble whether the alphabet is English or Chinese.
It was a combination of veneration for tradition, the love of true craftsmen for their well-worn tools and a healthy nostalgia for the newspapers of early California that fostered, and has perpetuated, the Shakespeare Press Museum at Cal Poly.
The museum, recognized as the most complete collection of its kind on the West Coast, was founded in 1939 by the late Charles Palmer, a ling-time public relations man for the Pacific Gas and Electric Co., who was well known in San Luis Obispo County.
Palmer, whose background included work on several California newspapers, was a life-long collector of printing equipment. He scrounged it from the ghost towns and cobwebby weekly newspaper shops in the Mother Lode country. His real specialty was type, wooden and metal fonts, some cases of which came ’round the Horn on clipper ships and others that were carried by pioneer printer-editors who crossed the Plains by wagon and train.
Palmer found literally tons of old presses — some more than 160 years old — and other printing equipment on his travels. He was able to put only some of the equipment into good working order before his death in 1964.
A codicil to Palmer’s will left this priceless collection to the California Newspaper Publishers Association which designated Cal Poly as its custodian in 1965.
The choice of a site was fortuitous. Reconstruction of the Shakespeare Press (the name was chosen by Palmer) came under the skilled and sympathetic direction of A.M. (Bert) Fellows, long-time head of what then was called the college’s Printing Technology and Management Department.
Fellows, who retired as head of the department in 1966, knew a thing or two about old printing equipment: he was raised in an Oklahoma newspaper backshop and learned to set type by hand at an age when most kids are learning to read.
Bert was a collector, too. During a score of years at Poly he had acquired relics like an old Campbell cylinder press which came around the Horn, had been used to produce a newspaper in San Francisco until the earthquake and had ended its working life by grinding out the eight-page Soledad Bee once a week until 1951.
The work of restoration — laborious reconstruction and overhaul of each piece of equipment — was continued by printing students under the tutelage of Fellows and his successor, Roderick W. Carruthers.
It always has been a labor of love, involving the donation of hours of precious out-of-class time by members of the student printing fraternity, Mat Pica Pi.
Old pieces of printing equipment continue to pile up in the museum’s already crowded ground floor quarters in the Graphic Arts building on the Cal Poly campus. Typical of the recent acquisitions is that of a 1882 hand-platen press. This antique, which cost $70 new 90 years ago, was purchased at a San Luis Obispo garage sale recently for $75. A student fund drive in the Graphic Communications Department paid for the press and volunteer repairmen soon had it running with a sound akin to the ticking of a Swiss watch.
Each year since 1966, students in Matt Mica Pi have appointed museum curators, who oversee the cataloging of the type and equipment, continue the restoration work and supervise guided tours.
Maurice Schmitz, now the operator of a San Luis Obispo silk screen shop and a lab assistant in printing at Poly, was the first student to be called “curator” of the museum. He was on hand for the dedication during the annual Poly Royal in 1966, when the late Julian A. McPhee promised that the museum would be preserved in perpetuity at the college.
The second curator was Aaron Yaras, who produced a museum guidebook and a handsome catalog of some of the type specimens as a senior project.
The labor of cataloging some 475 typefaces continued under Yaras’ successors, Marcus Drake, Brian Lawler, and the 1970 curator, John Garro of La Puente. Garro just completed a senior project which involved the technical classification of some 475 typefaces — some of them more than 100 years old — in the museum.
Co-curators have shared the responsibility for the museum operation for the past year: Frank Paiva of Sacramento and Emerson Hunt of Covina. Their main thrust, with the assistance of faculty advisor James Babb, has been to continue equipment restoration and publicize the museum’s offerings.
Though the historic collection is open only for guided tours and individual visits by arrangement with the Graphic Communications Department (hours from 8 to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, telephone
546-2145[see below] for information), its staff gets a real workout at least once a year during the annual Poly Royal on campus. Last year, Paiva and Hunt spun the heavy cast iron wheel on the old Campbell press some 60,000 times to produce more than 10,000 impressions of a page from “Poor Richard’s Almanack” distributed to Poly Royal visitors.
During the rest of the year, most of the museum’s visitors are history burrs — just passing through San Luis Obispo and — of course — craftsman printers who want to spend a quiet hour reminiscing about the good old days, the likes of which they’re not likely to see again anywhere but here.
UPDATE JUNE 2013 provided by Cal Poly’s Harvey R. Levenson, Ph. D. – Department Head, Graphic Communication:
Just as an update, Cal Poly’s Shakespeare Press Museum is alive and well, and growing in resources and popularity. As one of only two working printing museums west of the Rocky Mountains, the museum has recently grown to include a resource room housing “printing publications” dating back to the 1800s. It is an amazing facility. Further, the museum recently acquired a working Linotype machine; a valuable addition to an already valuable collection.
While the Shakespeare Press Museum is a symbol of communication technology past, it is also addressing contemporary technologies. For example, the museum houses a valuable collection of antique fonts. However, under the tutelage of Cal Poly Graphic Communication professor Brian Lawler, students are learning how to digitize these fonts for the first time ever.
We invite the public to tour the Shakespeare Press Museum and ask that you provide contact information. To arrange a tour one can simply contact Cal Poly’s Graphic Communication Department at 805-756-1108.