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Folger Story

A Printing Press Brings History to Life

A woman in a grey sweater looks over a young boy using a roller to ink the type to prepare an historic printing press to print.

A newly built recreation of an early printing press is set to fill a key role in the Shakespeare Exhibition Hall, showing how the First Folio of Shakespeare was created four centuries ago. It’s just one way that the new public spaces will engage with history and the humanities as the Folger welcomes visitors, families, students, teachers, artists, researchers, and more.

In September, a major addition to the Folger’s exhibition halls arrived: a full-size, working, historic reconstruction of a printing press from the era when the 1623 First Folio of Shakespeare was produced. The new press is made of oak and weighs 2000 pounds. It stands 6 1/2 feet tall and is about 3 feet wide and, when extended, about 4 feet long. A month after its delivery, its English builder, Alan May, and his son Martin visited the Folger to assemble the pieces and work with members of the Folger staff.

Now that the spaces are complete and ready for exhibitions to be installed, the printing press “feels like a herald,” says Greg Prickman, the Eric Weinmann Librarian and director of collections. “It’s one of the early arrivals that’s setting the stage and announcing what is to come.” With the press on-site, he says, the exhibition team can refine its plans for printing demonstrations for visitors.

The press will be located next to the display of the Folger’s 82 copies of the First Folio—the collection of Shakespeare’s plays without which 18 plays might have been lost. “It is going to be experiential,” Folger Director Michael Witmore says. By placing it there, “we have the ability to startle people who may take for granted that all of these things just fell out of the sky and that we can understand them today without consulting the context. It really helps to see how a book was printed, in addition to knowing what it says.”

A Folger Icon in the Making

For Prickman, a printing press is an essential part of the exhibition space—and it works especially well beside the First Folios. “For a certain segment of people,” he says, the display of the First Folios “is like a holy shrine. For other people, when they see 82 copies of the same book, it’s like, ‘Why on Earth?’” Part of the answer depends on the fact that copies of the First Folio—unlike copies of a modern printed book—are not all exactly the same; much has been learned by comparing the same printed page as it appears in different copies.

“That’s when we turn around and say, ‘look at this press,’ and talk about what it took to make the Folio,” says Prickman, who describes early printing as “demanding, imperfect, imprecise, and hard.” Printing was “a very physical process that was entirely dependent on human beings making decisions and operating machinery in a certain way,” he says. “It was a well-ordered process, but with many opportunities for errors to creep in.”

Prickman also knew just whom to ask to build it. A former print designer at The Kynoch Press in Birmingham, England, Alan May taught design at Stafford Art College and the University of Reading. After retiring in the late 1990s, he began researching and building historic reconstructions of early printing presses for universities, museums, and other institutions. He is especially well known for recreating Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press for The Machine That Made Us, a 2008 BBC documentary with Stephen Fry. May also produced historic presses for the time-travel series Outlander and an episode of another series, The Great.

While he carefully reviews whatever may be known about a press, which is often quite limited, May writes in his website that his work is inherently experimental; “the outcomes can never provide certainty about how things were done in the past, but they can be very useful in establishing the practicalities.“ To Prickman, that idea is at the heart of the project. “We’ve built something to understand something that otherwise exists in very few historical examples,” Prickman says. “To me, it’s living history. Make it three-dimensional and living and alive, and let’s see what we can learn.”

The Moxon Challenge

When he first wrote to May in January 2019, Prickman made a very specific request. After he introduced himself, Prickman explained that the Folger “wanted to make something that was as close as we can to recreate what would have been common in print shops in 1623,” when the First Folio was printed. Given that description, “Alan’s response was just lightning fast,” Prickman says. “He knew exactly where he wanted to go.” He also knew which source to use: Joseph Moxon’s landmark book, Mechanick exercises: or, the doctrine of handy-works: Applied to the art of printing (1683).

Moxon’s book, May notes, is “the first full account of printing that covers all of its aspects, including press design.” Since the book is from the early 1680s, “it is of course 60 years too late,” but it is “the best that can be done.” Moxon’s book describes two printing press designs, an “Old-fashion’d Press” and a “New-fashion’d Press.” Presses from 1623, when the First Folio was printed, correspond to the older version. But that poses a challenge.

Joseph Moxon’s Mechanick exercises: or, the doctrine of handy-works: Applied to the art of printing (1683)

below: working with a composing stick; the new-fashion’d press; and a pressman hanging paper

“Moxon has an agenda here,” May explains. “He is trying to promote in England the use of the Dutch press with its Blaew mechanism,” which was a refinement. As a result, “he provides careful measurements for the ‘New-fashion’d’ press, but no measurements for the ‘Old-fashion’d’ press. In addition, his portrayal of the old press is incomplete and badly drawn.”

When May examined the illustration for the new press, however, he found that the Blaew mechanism was the only significant difference between them—“so if we replace this with its old-fashioned equivalent, we have a usable set of measurements” to create the older press. May also had to make decisions about some puzzling aspects in Moxon’s description, particularly in regard to the press’s working height. He finished the press in early 2020, a year after first hearing from Prickman, and kept it until the Folger’s new exhibition halls could receive it.

A Media Earthquake

The new press represents another key fact about Shakespeare’s plays; it was printing that preserved them, as is true of almost all the other plays of the day. Very few hand-written manuscripts of plays from that time have survived, says Folger Director Witmore. Instead, “the printing press ensures that an ephemeral art form like theater could live on,” he says, “if the words are captured, printed, and then distributed.”

Photo by Lloyd Wolf

Printing also shaped the age in which Shakespeare lived—a time represented by the 15th-, 16th-, and 17th-century books in the Folger collection. “The printing press is a media earthquake,” Witmore says. Printing “allows you to preserve and distribute words and ideas, and that assists in any number of really important developments, including what we now call science, international exchange, religion, and much more.”

When the Folger reopens, he says, “people are going to walk into our galleries with smartphones, some of whom were born after smartphones were invented, after we were able to access huge amounts of data and knowledge on the phone. And they may have no idea how hard it was to even get a single word on a piece of paper. I am especially excited to reach those people, so that they can understand that the digital media revolution was not the first major media revolution.”