Print History: The Museum of Printing

How does one build a world-class printing museum from scratch? For the answer, look no further than the story of The Museum of Printing. It is not only an inspirational venture but also typifies the challenges any new museum venture would have to face in the twenty-first century

14 Jul 2021 | By Murali Ranganathan

It was the turbulent 1970s. The Boston Globe, the oldest and largest daily newspaper in Boston, Massachusetts was making a transition that no newspaper in the world could avoid. Hot metal composing was already a redundant technology by then, phototypesetting was the norm, but the electronic era was already knocking at the doors. In 1978, The Boston Globe finally decided to decommission its vast bank of hot metal composing machines, mainly Linotypes.

However, a group of Boston print enthusiasts managed to convince the newspaper management to salvage and preserve as much of the machines and associated equipment as possible. Their efforts succeeded and a slice of printing history received a temporary respite. But where was all the heavy equipment to be stored and how was it to be exhibited?

The ragtag group of Boston print conservators included Frank Romano. Not yet forty, he had already spent twenty years in the printing industry. Having joined the Mergenthaler Linotype Company right out of school in 1959, Romano was at the right place and at the right time to experience the cataclysmic changes taking place in the printing world. The first script which Romano worked with was Linotype Devanagari, India being a major market for the company.

After a few years with Linotype, Romano joined the newly emerging phototypesetting companies like Photon and Compugraphic. Rising through the ranks and working in variety of roles, Romano soon acquired considerable expertise in the field though he did not have any formal qualifications. By the time he started TypeWorld, a print trade magazine, in 1977, Romano was already being recognized as a print expert. He began writing on the future of the print industry and the challenges it would face in the digital era.

The seed of a museum
Though his livelihood depended on the future of print, Romano was equally concerned about preserving its past. While there were other equally keen print enthusiasts, Romano emerged as the leader of the group which organized itself into a non-profit organization called The Friends of the Museum of Printing.

The hot metal composing equipment from The Boston Globe was the nucleus of a rapidly growing collection. Like all other new print museums, the first major problem which the museum faced was storage. Luckily for them, the proprietors of the The Boston Globe stepped in again with free warehouse space for long-term storage. This would serve as the base of the museum until it could find its own space.

The last two decades of the twentieth century were a great time for anybody in the United States who wanted to collect discarded printing equipment as practically every printing press reinvented itself twice over in the transition from hot metal to phototypesetting to digital. All through the 1980s and 1990s, the Boston group collected printing equipment from all over the United States. Not only did they manage to get machines from the twentieth century, they also acquired a lot of material from the nineteenth century.

It was only in the mid-1990s that the collection could move into buildings where the machines could be displayed and visitors could be welcomed. It took on the rather nondescript but matter-of-fact name of Museum of Printing. It could finally move into premises owned by the Museum in 2016. It is located in Haverhill, a town at a short distance from the city of Boston. Supported by grants from many of the urban councils in the neighbourhood, the Museum of Printing also generates revenue from ticket sales, gift shop purchases, venue hire, and equipment rental.

A cornucopia of print treasures
The core of the collection at the Museum of Printing belongs to the era of hot metal composing which was dominated by two companies: Monotype and Linotype. While Monotype was mainly used for machine typesetting of books, Linotype dominated the market for newspapers and magazines. Not only does the Museum have the second prototype of the Linotype made in 1872, it also has the very last Linotype machine manufactured in the US (from 1972). It also has examples from Intertype (in which fonts could be interchanged) and Ludlow (mainly used for hot metal headline composition).

The pressroom is also well represented. The highlight of the collection is a superbly restored Columbian press from the early period (soon after 1813). It also has a variety of proof presses, iron hand presses and platen presses from an earlier era as well as offset and cylinder presses from the late nineteenth century.

Over the years, the Museum of Printing has been steadily acquiring large quantities of rare material related to print. It has perhaps one of the most extensive collection of typographic archival material in the world including all the original drawings for every typeface issued by Linotype in the US.

Supplemented by additional material from the UK, the number of drawings is close to 900,000. It also has nearly 900 type specimen books issued by original manufacturers and marketing companies which illustrate the growth of type over two hundred years. They recently acquired the Schappler Typographic Ephemera Collection which contains over 9,000 brochures, flyers, posters, and promotion pieces for typefaces.

While most printing museums have representative collections from the era of hand composing and hot metal composing, they are typically deficient in material from the phototypesetting era (1950s-1990s). However, the Museum of Printing has an impressive collection from this period including the Compugraphic CompuWriter, Intertype Fotosetter, Mergenthaler CRTronic and the Monotype Monophoto.

Importantly its archives contain all the art work (including  rubyliths, photo prints, and drawings) which were used to design phototypesetting fonts. The Museum also has cameras that were used to produce negatives from which the plates for offset printing machines were made. It also has material from the early years of digital typesetting including a range of computers.

Many areas allied to print and bookmaking are also well represented at the Museum of Printing. It has a large collection of typewriters on display including a few from the nineteenth century. It has a sample of office duplicating machines such as the Gestetner mimeograph and Titan Rocket spirit duplicator. It also has an Addressograph from 1892, one of the first machines designed to print address labels for mass mailing.

The Museum of Printing has emerged as one of the three largest printing museums in the United States of America, a country which has an umpteen number of print museums, big and small. When some of the larger institutions such as the Smithsonian Institute withdrew from exhibiting print-related material and many of the old teaching colleges began discarding outdated material, the Museum of Printing stepped in to preserve, catalogue, and eventually exhibit the material.

Growing with the Museum
In parallel to shepherding the Museum of Printing, Frank Romano was deeply engaged with the print industry. He has worked as a printing consultant for government, large corporates and publishers. He wrote prolifically and was constantly on the lecture circuit. He joined the Rochester Institute of Technology where he taught for over twenty-five years.

At last count, he had written over sixty books including the industry-standard Encyclopedia of Graphic Communications (with Richard Romano). Besides writing arcane books like The Secret Life of Typewriters, Romano has written a trilogy of books on print history: History of the Linotype Company (2014), History of the Phototypesetting Era (2014), and History of Desktop Publishing (2019). In these books, he has combined his personal experience in the field with extensive research to produce a valuable historical narrative.

Frank Romano has also been collecting books and journals related to printing and the graphic arts for many years. This forms the core of the print library at the Museum of Printing which has been supplemented by other specialist collections and contains close to ten thousand imprints.

Protecting print heritage
The journey of the Museum of Printing over four decades is typical of many printing museums around the world — a group of print enthusiasts and historians coming together to form a body corporate of a future museum; acquiring a core collection to which they add over the years; initial support being provided by the printing and publishing fraternity in cash and kind; building up the collection and storing them in warehouses; identifying and moving into museum premises a few years later; liaising with local governmental bodies for grants and exhibition space; raising enough money to acquire a permanent exhibition site for the museum; and, largely depending on volunteers to run the museum. And needing print champions like Frank Romano to make sure it stayed the course.

Will print museums in India have to take this well-traversed route which American museums did in the 1980s? Or is the ecosystem for preserving heritage and culture stronger in the 2020s? Can they circumvent many of the hurdles with strong financial and technical support from the print, publishing and packaging industry?

Will print associations step up to play an influential role? Will the large paper manufacturing companies view this as part of their heritage? Will many of the highly knowledgable printers with a historical consciousness take on the mantle of leadership? All these questions will be answered in the coming years, hopefully in the positive. 

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