Colleges consider the role of the printing press

Leslie Smith ’70 assists a student in the Davenport Book Arts Center, which holds four printing workshops each week.
Leslie Smith ’70 assists a student in the Davenport Book Arts Center, which holds four printing workshops each week. Photo by Christina Tsai.

In both the Davenport and Jonathan Edwards College basements, framed collections ofhand-printed posters and invitations line the walls near the colleges’ print shops. Some display images ofYale buildings, while others are simply elaborate greeting cards or concert posters.

These are not displays commemorating an art that has died; in Davenport and JE, with the support of thecolleges’masters, Yale students have continued practicing the longtradition of letterpress printing.

By the 1980s, every residential college had its own printing press. But today, in an age increasingly dependent on digital technology, only Davenport, JE and Branford continue to house printing presses in their basements for students to design and print their own manuscripts.

Still, in the last two years, no one has used the Branford printshop. Having perceived this “extremely limited” interest in the use of the press, Branford College Master Elizabeth Bradley GRD ’96 said discussions have begun this fall about whether or not the printing presses in Branford need to find a new home.

“We are still early in the process, but we’re thoroughly evaluating the use of the printing press,” Bradley said. “We want to use the space for the students’ best interest.”

The printing presses of Davenport and JE continue a tradition of letterpress printing important to the legacy of both colleges. Davenport and JE master printers — who include both students and residential college fellows — pass along their knowledge and their experiences with these machines, while Branford determines ifthe room containing its printing press should be adapted to another use.

plans for each college included rooms designatedfor printing presses, director of the Davenport Book Arts Center R. Raleigh D’Adamo ’53said.

Jonathan Edwards and Timothy Dwight colleges established print shops in 1936, followed by Branford in 1937. Other colleges soon acquired their own printers and devoted rooms for letterpress printing.Part of the reasoning behind purchasing a printing press was to create job opportunities for students: while they occasionally had time to make printed works for themselves, most worked in the letterpress shops as part of student employment.

Leslie E. Smith ’70, who was a printer in Pierson College in the late 1960s, said he and his fellow printers used to make invitations, posters, greeting cards and menus for the Master’s Office.

Even if digital technology now fills this publishing role,Smith — who worked as the art director for the magazine Progressive Architecture— attributed his sense of design to his experience working at the Pierson press.

Smith, who lives in West Haven, returnedthis fall to campus to teach one of the printing classes at the Davenport Book Arts Center, which comprises a print shop and a bookbinding studio — where workshops supervised by students or college fellows such as Smith occur four times a week.

“Now, in the age of the digital production, letterpress printing has no longer a commercial application,” Smith said after class last Thursday. “However, what we’re here for today is the artistry of printing.”

Among three freshmen who arrived last week to learn about the printing presses, Maureen O’Hanlon ’15 has been coming every week for the past month, when she first learned how to print her name using the machines.

“You can do one thing for about three hours and have your mind set on that. It’s really engrossing,” O’Hanlonsaid. “Even though maybe not everyone likes it, it’s very cool to run the paper through the press and feel the indentation that it makes on the back side.”

A total of 35 students are enrolled in four printing classes and two bookbinding classes at the Davenport Book Arts Center this semester. JE offers a college seminar titled “The Art of the Printed Word” in the fall and sponsors workshops in the spring.

Master printer for Jonathan Edwards College Richard Rose, who teaches the fall seminar in JE, said that letterpress printing is “a form of art”, a “craft” that requires commitment and time to be mastered.

“Contrary to digital printing, it’s easy to make mistakes,” Rose said. “But sometimes it’s the imperfections that add interest and authenticity.”

On the issueof letterpress printing’srole today, Rose and D’Adamo said they have no doubt it will remain as an art form.

With the advent of the personal computer, many of the residential college presses fell into disuse beginning inthe 1970s and were closed down. Three remain today, but Branford’s may be soon to leave its college too, Bradley said.

The printing presses in both JE and Davenport have long been central to the colleges’ missions. Murphy Temple ‘12, who teachesone of the four printing classes at Davenport and is the manager of the Book Arts Center, defended the letterpress shops.

“The culture of printing has been very strong here at Yale, especially in Davenport and JE,” Temple, a former photography editor for the News, said.

Davenport’s press has operated continuously since 1967, D’Adamo said, attributing the success of this and the JE press to the support of the colleges’masters over the years.

With the over-50-year history of the Jonathan Edwards’ printing press, JE Master Penelope Laurans said in an email that the College considers itself as contributing to a larger tradition of printing at Yale. She added that no JE master, to her knowledge, has considered closing down the press.

“Generations of master printers and JE masters have seen to it that the JE press is well served with good space, wonderful machines and beautiful type,” Laurans said. “[L]etterpress printing is something generations of JE students have loved to learn.”

Given that other residential colleges provide different amenities to students that JE may not, she explained that she did not necessarily believe every college needed a printing press.

“It is a legacy to JE and I believe it is part of our mission to help inculcate new people into this art, to carry it on,” she said.

While JE and Davenport plan to continuethis college tradition, Bradley said that the decrease in popularity of the Branford press might be a “reflection of technological change” in our society. She mentioned a new digital media center in the college that she said students use “all the time” to create art, invitations, and posters.

“A final decision about the print shop has not yet been reached, but we’re trying very hard to meet the needs of the students,” Bradley said. “We’ve had requests for an art gallery, additional fitness facilities or music rooms.”

Still, Bradley said that she remains committed to preserving any historical material from the press if they decide to remove it from the college.

Branford student Julie Botnick ’14 took a printing class in Davenport last year and said that she sent an email over the summer to Bradley hoping to get the Branford press back up and running.

Botnick said that Bradley did not give her a positive response, adding that it was “unfortunate” Bradley was considering closing down the press because, even though she was able to take a printing class in Davenport, she does not have easy access to a print shop at all times.

“My dad was in Branford, too, and he had access to the print shop,” she said. “It’s much more convenient to have a printing press in your college…Now it hasn’t been open for years, and it’s unfortunate that they’re considering closing it down.”

D’Adamo said he wished they wouldkeep the press alive because, just as in Davenport, printing used to be a favorite activity among Branford students.

“It kills me to think that another press might close down soon,” he said, later adding, “It just seems like some colleges have a strong tradition in printing, and we’re trying to keep it up.”

Letterpress printing programs and workshops in Davenport and JE are offered in both terms and are open to all Yale undergraduate students, but students in these colleges receive preference for enrollment.

Comments

  • Mikelawyr2

    Olie! Olie! Olie! D’port Press!

    Life is Hell.