At the southern tip of Manhattan, salt air blows over slips once forested by thousands of tall-masted ships. They still host the few remaining vessels, dwarfed by the towers of financial buildings. Nestled near these reminders of the port of New York’s glory days is the storefront of Bowne and Co., Stationers, where the practice of letterpress printing has been carried on for almost 250 years.
Bowne and Co. was founded in 1775 as part of the cottage industry of hotels, financiers, and merchant offices that sprang up around the bustling harbor. Nowadays, the romance of letterpress rings of poetry and chapbooks, but at the South Street Seaport, importers needed invoices for cargo, fishmongers needed receipts, and everyone needed advertising. By the end of the 19th century, Bowne and Co. was one of 700 printing offices, staffed by 8,000 workers arranging lead and wooden type and hauling press levers, that operated as an integral facet of New York City’s booming commerce scene.
Bowne and Co., part of the South Street Seaport Museum since 1975, is now part living museum, part small-run press, and part unofficial clubhouse for letterpress wonks. It is now run by two designers, Rob Wilson and Christine Picone. “When I started here four years ago, we were a little bit like the Wild West,” says Wilson, who says he lured Picone into joining him when she stopped into the studio a month after he took the job. He succeeded by showing her the museum’s hoard of type and Tri-Arts Collection specimen books, which detail 900-plus examples Victorian decorative types, all of which were housed in boxes in storage. “He just kind of whipped out all the extra special stuff that makes designers go crazy,” Picone recalls. Four years later, the two operate as in-house designer and art director/ operations manager, though both admit that they wear many more hats than those titles indicate.
Part of Wilson and Picone’s mission is to exhibit the art of printing to the public, so Wilson always has a blue smock on hand to don for a demo. He spreads a glistening pool of black ink onto a stone and rolls a brayer through the honey-thick liquid. The brayer hisses back and forth. Wilson waits for the snap and pop (“onions in a pan” or “baby snakes,” he says) that indicates it’s time to load up the moveable type into a nearby iron Washington press from 1836 that packs 600 pounds per square inch.
There’s a spring and thunk from the press and out pops a heavy stock poster emblazoned with the Walt Whitman quote: “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” Picone hangs the gleaming poster next to one bearing a message from Ray Eames: “What works good is better than what looks good, because what works good lasts.”
Much of the collection at Bowne and Co. comes from the 1970s, when shops and newspapers threw out their old equipment en masse. The rooms are littered with tabletop and foot pedal presses, trays of bulbous alphabets, and cabinets marked with helpful labels like “ornaments + borders,” “current projects,” and “nightmare type.”
“It’s like ‘Oh great, here’s this wonderful jewel that we didn’t know we had for 30 years’. We’re still finding things,” Wilson says. The asset they’re most excited about is 986 boxes of type collected (or hoarded) by printer Frederick Nelson Philipps, who saved the 19th century fonts from extinction as newspapers and printers tossed out old faces in favor of new lettering. Picone and Wilson hope the pieces will spark a digitization project to make the long-lost fonts available to the public.
With a mandate to demonstrate, Bowne and Co. makes sure these presses don’t become untouchable sculptures, but retain the purpose of useable tools. “These machines and presses were made to print 10 hours a day, every day,” says Wilson. “Now, every machine gets touched at least once a week. That means that we’re going to preserve them better, but we’re also going to preserve the skill of letterpress printing better.”