A Helena Hidden Gem
By Brian D’Ambrosio
Printing was sustainable before ‘sustainability’ became a buzzword. Before the age of offset printing, ‘handmade’ was not only customary in the industry – it was the only way of life.
Helena-based letterpress artist Aaron Parrett is tracking the painstaking path of J. Allen Hosmer, who wrote and printed “A Trip to the States in 1865.” Hosmer, a teenager at the time, was the first Montanan to write a book, print it with handset type, letter by letter, and then bind it manually. (Letterpress is printing from a hard, raised image under pressure, using thick ink.)
“Hosmer was the only and the first person to be crazy enough to do it,” said Parrett, positioning lead letters into an iron “type stick” that he will use to make a “form” that he fixes in place on the press.
“He created a 92 page book and he did it one page at a time, and he made maybe four dozen copies, total. There are still 12 of those in existence. There is an inherent worth – you can’t get one of the copies for less than $28,000 – because he went to all of the labor to do it. That is part of the charm of it.”
Parrett’s letterpress studio at 201 1/2 N. Rodney St., on the edge of Downtown Helena, is boosted by a C&P platen linotype press built in 1920 that he picked up in Black Eagle. Rarely used today, linotype is a composing machine that produces lines of words as single strips of metal.
Selecting from a case full of non-alphabetized letters, Parrett in chorus illustrates and describes the process.
“The terms ‘lower case’ and ‘upper case’ originated from the regular layouts of the drawers called type cases used to hold the movable type for letterpress printing. The little letters could be located in the lower case.”
On the table, he places a “form” inside “furniture” (small wooden pieces), supports it with a “reglet” (spacing material) and uses “coins,” or locking devices, to tighten. Similar to presses used in winemaking, the form needs to be tightened by the printmaker, and then the sheet of paper must be inked. Once the paper is rubbed with ink, it’s raised and sandwiched against another plate. The rolling speed and movement are operated by Parrett bearing down on a foot treadle.
“Ben Franklin did everything the same exact way,” said Parrett, who teaches Latin at Carroll College and is a tenured English professor at the University of Great Falls.
“It’s laborious to pull an impression. You go back and forth. And every impression, well, it probably took Franklin two to three minutes to pull and hand ink it. Until about 1850, printing was done the same way that it had been done when (Johannes) Guttenberg did it. Offset printing all but supplanted linotype by the mid-1970s.”
The walls of the slim, narrow building are lined with metal and wood type cabinets designed to hold the different typefaces of blocky letters and numerals. One of Parrett’s cherished cases traveled on steamboat to Fort Benton in 1870. Every piece of typeface has a foundry mark indicating when the type was made; many of them are archaic or incomplete.
Indeed, Parrett said that everything about letter-pressing is steeped in antiquity and that’s a big part of what intrigues him. The concept of durability is another.
“The odds that you’ve read a sown-bound book are pretty slim,” said Parrett. “Most books these days are made with perfect binding, slapped together, and are designed to be obsolete. Three or four readings of a hardcover book and it will fall apart and you just send it to Goodwill. The opposite of that is that there are 300 copies of Guttenberg’s first bible around. That’s a different approach to the presentation of text.”
Parrett, born in Butte, raised in Helena, said that a number of his earliest childhood memories are wrapped in images of bookbinding and book artistry.
“I used to take these Big Little Books and they were kid-sized, an inch thick, I was probably in the fourth grade. I stacked the paper up and I remember putting it into a paper cutter. No glue. I taped it and filled that with my own Big Little Books. I’ve always had that in the back of my mind. I get flashes of it when I do this.”
While Parrett describes the Territorial Press as more of a pursuit of passion than a deliberate commercial enterprise, he finds himself accepting orders to hand-press everything from business cards to art opening announcements. Still, his primary goal is to relish in his hobby and complete his own 32 page book, as a deferential nod to Hosmer.
“I am still amazed by a functional book like Hosmer’s,” said Parrett. “I mean, he wrote the book at age 15 and these beautiful impressions were a part of the page at a time. It’s funny, but at the end of his book, he apologized, and he said he was sorry because he ran out of type.
“He said something like fussy readers will note that I used a comma where I should’ve a period and will note I only had one capital W. That is charming. He was not a bad writer or typographer. He was doing the best that he could with what he had.”