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"An Arizona Printer Speaks Up"

John Beecher

I fear that I am an interloper on this evening’s program. I am not a collector of "Arizoniana" but rather my wife and I are  producers are producers of Arizona imprints which we hope other people are going to collect. Some distant day perhaps, after we have gone to our rewards -- whatever these may be – collectors will avidly hunt through catalogs for the productions of the Rampart Press in Jerome, and will thrill over its romantic career. For the present the romance is not so obvious. We are flying blind, so to speak, hoping that we can develop enough support to sustain and continue a venture which often-times seems to us thoroughly thankless and quixotic.

My wife and I started printing more or less by accident in California three years ago, encouraged by some friends who, as the phrase goes, were "fine printers." In case you don't know, a "fine printer" is to the ordinary commercial printer as a "gentleman farmer" is to a dirt farmer. He prints (or farms) because he loves it or because he wishes to set up a loss for tax purposes. Time and again we have given sober consideration to the practical logic behind our press, and have discovered no sane basis for what we are doing. But still we go on printing and will doubtless continue to do so either until a foundation endows us with a million dollars, or we lose our last threadbare shirts. Already we are so "gone" on the printing kick that we couldn't get off it if we tried.

So far we have attempted only poetry which we have printed in small, handset editions, illustrated with block prints executed mostly by my wife, and bound in soft covers. Sad experience with domestic type led us to settle for imported German types not because we go for the foreign and exotic on principle but simply because we found the German types were better for our purposes -- more lasting through many impressions, fresher and more striking in design. No art stands still, not even typography which has been called the ars artium conservatrix, or the conservative art since it conserves all the others with its symbols. Less than a generation ago America led the world in this field, with Bruce Rogers and Frederick Goudy designing type-faces universally admired and adopted. Today the leadership appears to have moved back to the country where the first black-letter characters were cast by Gutenberg. Our inks come also from Germany, and are manufactured by the world's oldest ink-house. We have chosen these inks because of their superior lustre and the unfading brilliance of their colors which set off to maximum advantage the block prints that illustrate our productions.

The press we now use is 100 per cent American, I am glad to certify, although it is quite venerable and ponderously slow by contemporary commercial standards. It is what is known as a Colt’s Armory and was manufactured in Hartford, Connecticut, almost seventy years ago. It has no complex automatic gadgets to pick up the sheets here and deliver them over there. Like the ancient printers, I feed it by hand. Still, this is the kind of press which is eagerly sought through all the trade journal want-ad columns and second-hand printing equipment shops by the strange fraternity of "fine printers" for we believe that no contemporary improvement-laden press can appracoh the old Colt’s for impressional strength, evenness of ink distribution, and delicate accuracy of execution. If one has the patience to make-ready down to the final dot on the ultimate "i", it is possible to produce on the Colt's an almost perfect printed page. I use the qualifying word "almost" advisedly, since to the best of my knowledge no absolutely perfect page has ever come off anyone’s press.

Up to now we have used only domestic papers for our publications. These machine-made papers are quite excellent and certainly seem good enough for any use--until one becomes acquainted with the handmade papers which these strive to imitate. Astonishingly enough -- or perhaps it is not so astonishing after all -- there is no longer any such thing as an American handmade paper. In fine papermaking, the unquestioned supremacy belongs to Japan. The Japanese samples in our possession are so beautiful that we are dreaming of whole series of broadsides and portfolios just for the pleasure of

Covering these exquisite textures with appropriate typographical designs. From England too still come noble handmade papers such as Hammer and Anvil whose rigorous specifications were first laid down by William Morris for his Kelmscott Press where the Nineteenth Century revival of printing had its origin. France produces many superb handmades, specially from the remote mountain fastnesses of the Auvergne where machine-culture has scarcely penetrated. Here the peasant women sit before their doors with their lace frames while withindoors their menfolk are making papers just as beautiful in their way as Auvergne lace. The Italians also export magnificent handmade papers, particularly in the heavy grades called cover stocks. But all these superlative papers are expensive, what with transportation costs and import duties. Few indeed are the private individuals -- or even public librarians -- who are willing to pay the costs that the usage of handmade papers entails. If my wife any I can ever develop a sufficient market for this sort of supremely beautiful thing, we intend to make wide use of handmade papers from all over the world.

Thus far I have dealt exclusively with the techniques and physical materials of printing. Certainly of co-equal importance are the writings selected to be printed. Fine printers as a class too often play it safe on this score, choosing to print only the tried-and-true, venerated classics, and the like. At this point we are gambling on the authenticity of the present age in literature, printing what seems the best of the hundreds of previously unpublished poems which are submitted to us from the United States, Canada, England, and even other countries. We have also printed a good deal of my own work since I am a poet. I have discovered in the process that it is a wonderful corrective discipline for a poet to print his own poems for it shows up their weaknesses with the most unmistakable clarity. Poems which I thought to be finished as they came from my typewriter—having already been hammered through half a dozen drafts -- I have revised over and over again in type on the stone, a most tedious and absurd process to be sure, but this method of giving one's work the ultimate polish conveys an inexpressible satisfaction which every poet should know.

How my wife and I happened to choose Arizona for our press is something which belongs in this brief account. On a trip home to San Francisco from New York in the summer of 1957 we chanced to pass through Jerome. We were charmed with the place and thought we should like to settle there if the opportunity ever came. A year later it did. We luckily found a vacant shop building with a sweeping view of the Verde Valley, the redrock of Oak Creek, the Mogollon Rim and the San Francisco Peaks -- a panorama of literally thousands of square miles which I overlook as I set type or design our pages. I am sure no other printer in the world has so inspiring a place to work. After the hubbub of the metropolis, Jerome is very quiet. That is what we wanted to find since work such as ours can be best accomplished in a setting of natural beauty, serenity and repose. We work under nobody's gun -- not even our own -- meet no deadlines, have no schedules pinned before our eyes. If a refractory page requires three days to design, set. Makeready on, and print -- then three days it freely gets. My wife sews up our printed quartos by hand with a needle and linen thread, for we possess no stitching machine. Neither have we invested in a mechanical folder. Every sheet is folded by hand with a bone leader similar to that employed by Gutenberg and his early followers. We are not equipped to turn out fast, slick commercial jobs nor, God willing, do we ever intend to acquire labor-saving, mass-production equipment.

What the future may hold in store for a small press like ours is difficult to foresee. Ideally, we would like to continue down the path we are now on, printing only the best poetry which is submitted to us. We would like also to expand our stock of type-faces to include more of the new designs coming from great European typographers. Another

Dream of ours concerns designing our own type-face, and thus renewing the tradition of American type-design which was formerly so much alive. My wife is an accomplished calligrapher so that anything we might produce along these lines would necessarily be largely her work. I don't think there has ever been a woman type-designer, but I see no reason why there shouldn't be.

As I mentioned earlier, we are much tempted by the idea of producing a series of broadsides and portfolios utilizing only the choicest imported handmade papers. These would be decorated with original block prints from the hand of my wife and other artists. I keep associating this idea with the further idea of making this a frankly regional series -- poetry like Whitman's Song of the Redwood Tree would make a superb big broadside for example. What a portfolio of kachina figures with explanatory text might be designed or of Prehistoric pueblo pottery patterns similar to our own pressmark which was derived from a Twelfth Century bowl in our own collection. All this -- if anything is to come of these dreams -- will no doubt develop in the course of time.

One thing is quite certain. We do not wish to become a regional press specializing exclusively in Arizona and Western themes and materials. Small as our present subscription list is, it is broad, including public libraries, universities, poets, critics and collectors all over the United States. Our printing materials, as I have indicated, are drawn from all over the world, as is the case also with the contributions of poets. We want to become rooted in, but not bounded by, Arizona and the West. I think this sums up our intentions in so far as they can at present be phrased. We do not plan to expand, to acquire big new automatic presses and stitchers and folders and whatnot, to get out editions of thousands instead of hundreds. There are already presses enough in the leviathan category, presses far more efficient than ours, capable of deluging the public with indifferently printed and designed books. Ours is another function entirely, as we see it.

The great Englsh printer, Thomas James Cobden-Sanderson, whose Doves Press produced some of the most beautiful books of the printing revival around the turn of the century, found the following words to express the meaning and purpose of his press. "'Today," he wrote in1900, "there is an immense reproduction in forms at once admirable and cheap of all books which have stood the test of time. But such reproduction is not a substitute for the more monumental production of the same books, and such production, expressive of man’s admiration, is a legitimate ambition of the Printing Press and of some Press the imperative duty."

The achievement of monumentality in printing is not our paramount aim but rather the harmonizing of the form of printing with the writings printed. Only the truly monumental should receive monumental treatment. This is our feeling. We fully subscribe however to Cobden-Sanderson’s dictum that it is the imperative duty of some press, in an age of mass-production, to seek to achieve the high level of typographical beauty which in the first age of printing was common to virtually all books.

From Arizona Librarian (Summer 1959)

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