Chestertown’s printing press: The art and power of ink on paper
One snowy afternoon in February, a short stack of poetry postcards sits on the industrial paper cutter in the print shop at Washington College’s Rose O’Neill Literary House. Red ink on white paper and featuring a poem by Nick Flynn, the postcards are from a student project, the tympan paper for which is still sitting on the platen of an early 1900s press.
The print shop is operated by Mike Kaylor, a man with a certain Hemingway-esque look about him, a master printer who also teaches ancient and medieval history at a private day school just down the road from the college’s historic Chestertown campus.
Kaylor and his wife previously owned a small printing business in Chestertown and as his interest in the equipment and the history of it grew, so too did his collection.
“Thirty or so years ago, this kind of printing had pretty much died,” Kaylor said, sitting in the Lit House over the winter. People in the industry knew about Kaylor’s collection, so as owners retired or passed away, he would get calls seeing if he wanted the equipment.
When the college sought to establish a print shop for the Lit House in the mid-1980s, Kaylor was brought on board, along with his collection.
Associate English professor and author James Allen Hall calls the print shop “the beating heart” of the Lit House. He would know; he is the director of the Lit House.
“It’s where words come alive, and where students learn the first technologies of publishing. They leave the print shop with a renewed passion for words, for their careful and deliberate and precise articulation,” Hall said. “The Print Shop often creates the passionate spark that fuels a student into a career as a writer, an editor or a publisher of beautiful words.”
Sophomore Justin Nash is often found in the Lit House and has taken Kaylor’s workshops. Also interested in graphic design, Nash enjoys using the presses for his own projects.
“I just really enjoy working on the presses and seeing the sort of like physicality of it. I don’t think there are many other arts forms where you have what you want to create set in lead, and you see the backward, upside-down impression of it and then it comes out the way you want it,” he said.
The walls of the Lit House are covered in framed posters for authors who have visited Washington College, among them are poetry broadsides produced in the print shop.
Lindsay Lusby is the assistant director of the Lit House. A member of Washington College’s Class of 2008 and an accomplished writer herself, she now designs the broadsides having taken Kaylor’s workshops during her student years.
“Once I started, I got really hooked and I was there all the time,” Lusby said. “You get the opportunity to take words that you put on the page and experience them in a tangible way.”
One particular broadside of note designed by Lusby reimagines the iconic red and green Tabasco Sauce label for Tara Betts’ poem “A Second Plate at Pearl’s Place.” Another design of Lusby’s incorporates dog tags for a piece by author Anthony Swofford, a Gulf War veteran whose memoir “Jarhead” was turned into a film by Academy Award-winning director Sam Mendes.
Kaylor has produced broadsides for three noted authors who not long after became Nobel Prize winners: Joseph Brodsky, Toni Morrison and Derek Walcott.
Kaylor recalled that in laying out the type for a piece selected to be Morrison’s broadside, the last line required eight lowercase H’s but he had only three left in the type case. He said in talking to Morrison, she told him he should have called her, she would have changed the line.
“That’s like the greatest compliment from any writer I have ever gotten, especially from Toni Morrison,” he said.
There are three presses in the Lit House shop. Two are Chandler and Prices, the 1914 “new style” with an electric motor and a 1903 “old style” operated by treadle, i.e. your foot. Both are all heavy metal, flywheels and belts. The third, which does the bulk of the work, is a mid-20th century Vandercook cylinder press.
As Kaylor tells it, there were two types of print companies back in the day, those that produced books and those that did small jobs like letterheads, business cards and envelopes.
“For book printing, you needed a lot of type and very few styles. For job printing you needed very little type and a great variety of styles,” Kaylor said.
Much of what Kaylor and the Lit House have acquired over the years is from small job printers. Throughout the college’s print shop are type cabinets. Each drawer, a type case, houses a type face. Labels read “12 Craw Clarendon,” “18 Palatino,” “24 Lexington,” “18 pt. Caslon Roman,” “24 Stagg,” and on and on and on.
In addition to the type faces, a print shop visitor might stumble upon a case of dingbats, such as hands with the index finger pointing left or right like in old-timey ads, or pieces meant to look like old-timey ads.
Kaylor said the Lit House print shop has depth in some of its type cases, making them rich enough to produce books from time to time, though the process harkens back to the earliest days of printing.
“We can set four pages or so of a book and print those and, like Gutenberg, distribute the type and set four more pages,” Kaylor said.
And it’s not all old-fashioned letterpress being produced. The print shop also employs a photopolymer plate process, allowing for computer-generated pieces that can be edited, changed and retooled with the click of a button.
“When you’ve set type by hand for a long time, that starts to become very appealing,” Kaylor quipped.
Kaylor has yet to meet an author who did not like seeing his or her words in print. That has led to a lot of positive interactions with visiting writers who enjoyed seeing the pieces produced in the print shop and some of the unique interpretations of their work, which is another benefit for the students, Kaylor said.
“They make a connection at another level with the writers,” he said. “There’s a rapport that wouldn’t exist otherwise. It’s one thing to read somebody’s work and have to respond to it. It’s another to respond to it this way.”
Editor’s note: Shore Monthly Editor Sarah Ensor is a volunteer member of the Washington College Alumni Writers group, which has ties to the Rose O’Neil Literary House.