Ben Franklin’s Backyard

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Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Science Festival

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.

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Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Science Festival

 

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Happy National Handwriting Day!

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Yes, there is such a thing as a National Handwriting Day, and it just so happens that I have a short review of a book about handwriting in the current print issue of Utne. Today seems like the perfect day to share it with you. I interviewed the book’s author, Anne Trubek, as well, and Utne plans to post our Q&A on their website, so I’ll link to that once they have.

Trubek and I talked about the history of writing by hand, as well as the demise of this ancient art, which she says is certain but likely to be very drawn out. I don’t have particularly sentimental feelings about handwriting myself, but I am very interested in it (and have been collecting articles on the subject for years now). It’s been fascinating for me to watch the shift from pen to keyboard take place. Though I’m not yet hideously, horribly old, I got an old-fashioned Catholic school education as a kid, and our school had dedicated penmanship classes at a time when that sort of instruction was already falling out of favor. As many, many news outlets have reported in recent years, learning to write by hand has only become more uncommon since then. These days, the majority of adults in the U.S. use keyboards and smartphones for writing far more often than they use paper and ink, and that includes me. That being said, I also have about 20 dear pen-pals who I write handwritten letters to on a regular basis, and I still much prefer to jot down ideas and notes in a small notebook that I carry around in my bag, rather than on my fiddly little phone or my cumbersome laptop. The truth is, I enjoy being able to use all of these tools, new-fangled and time-tested alike, and I think we’re awfully lucky to get to live in a time when we can have our pick.

The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting
by Anne Trubek
Bloomsbury

As digital supplants print as our default medium and writing by hand goes the way of the dinosaur—whether you remember your penmanship classes from grade school, or were already keyboarding by the time you were ten—chances are good you have an opinion on handwriting. As Anne Trubek shows us in her vigorous new book, The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting, it’s a subject people have had strong feelings about for a long time.

Trubek, a former Oberlin professor, acts as an unsentimental tour guide through handwriting’s history, from the earliest impressions in clay to a modern American classroom, where second graders learn both to type on a keyboard and write by hand. At the Morgan Library & Museum in New York, she has the pleasure of holding a clay Sumerian cuneiform tablet in her hand, just as the person who wrote on it with a stylus did some 5,000 years ago. (It’s surprisingly small and comfortable to hold, not unlike her smartphone.)

The author shows us how medieval scribes copied out manuscripts by hand, and tells us what happened when the printing press came along to make their work obsolete: Interestingly, the new technology didn’t immediately replace the old one, and “scores” of manuscript books were made after the production of printed books began. We also learn that by the 16th and 17th centuries, Europeans had a variety of scripts that denoted social class, gender, and profession. In fact, the few English women who were taught during the 16-19th centuries learned a special script called Italian hand, “a simpler script for the simpler sex.”

In looking toward handwriting’s “uncertain future,” Trubek seems to decide it’s not all that uncertain: It’s on its way out, though it will probably take a very long time to go. Many people find this time of flux disturbing, and long for the human-ness of handwriting, a fact Trubek reports without scorn—though she’s dismissive of recent research that has come out from several universities suggesting that handwriting is cognitively superior to typing in various ways, calling the science “fuzzy.”

Though much has changed, all of the concerns Trubek touches on in her history of handwriting—class and gender, culture and tradition—have resonance for us today. Even the desire to return to the warmth and authenticity of handwriting has a recent historical precedent, she writes. One hundred years ago, William Morris and friends revived medieval calligraphy methods as a response to the industrial revolution, “with its machines and smog and printed letters.” Just as letterpress printing is considered an art form today, those revivalists called their illuminated pages artworks, preserving their beauty for a world that no longer needed them for communication.