In March 2020 the Friends of Biggar Museum, in association with Atkinson-Pryce Bookshop held their first ‘Big Lit Weekend’, ‘a fun packed event celebrating the wonder of communication, the written and spoken word from the past and present’ (Big Lit press release, 2020). Taking inspiration from the history of communication and linking to the museum’s own collections, the Friends, with fantastic support from Atkinson-Pryce Bookshop, put together a wonderful selection of talks, pop-ups and hands-on activities to enthuse, engage, educate and entertain visitors.
Biggar and Upper Clydesdale Museum opened in 2015, uniting the collections of the Moat Park Heritage Centre and Gladstone Court Museum. The latter reimagined Victorian shops and businesses and became the Gladstone Court Streetscape. It includes an apothecary, grocer, ironmonger, bootmaker, toyshop, clockmaker, dressmaker and printers.
In the print shop, locally printed posters adorn the walls and three racks full of metal type fill the edge spaces. A beautiful 1846 Columbian Eagle Press dominates the room.
Philadelphian George Clymer invented the Columbian Eagle Press in 1813. The American ‘Eagle’ worked with a series of levers to lower the platen onto the paper and type to make a print, which allowed printers to work quicker and print bigger. Clymer moved to London in 1817 where he set up press production. The plaque on the Biggar press shows a London makers mark so it is possible that it came from his company, though its exact route into the museum’s collections is unknown.
Printing, in the late 1800s, had become a fixture in most rural towns. Biggar got its first press in 1843. David Lockhart, one of two printers listed in Slaters 1878 Directory is the inspiration for the museum’s display. He ‘learned his trade at the North Vennel, Lanark before moving to 133 High Street in Biggar’ (Museum Guidebook, p 22). Lockhart was a jobbing letterpress printer, producing posters, leaflets and the ephemera of everyday life. He also published books, including in 1862, William Hunter’s Biggar and the House of Fleming.
Letterpress Printing is a relief printing process. The raised surface is composed by setting individual pieces of type, and then locking them into a forme. The forme is put to bed in a press, the raised surface inked, and then transferred by pressure onto paper. It was THE process employed to communicate the printed word for over 500 years.
Many museums hold examples of our print heritage and the Big Lit was the perfect opportunity to allow direct interaction with letterpress and the printing process. This was not without its challenges. The room is small and the working space extremely limited, also there would be ink. I needed to consider how to manage the space and supervise the use in a fun and safe way, whilst protecting the collections. It became clear that keeping it simple and straightforward was the best solution.
I decided, after assessing the space and discussion with Elaine and the Friends team, to focus solely on the printing part of the process. Visitors would print a poster and this became their personal keepsake of the event. I would supervise the use of the press, roller, and monitor the inky fingers situation. (A supply of wipes was necessary!)
The Friends offered a history of writing and communication that gave visitors an opportunity to experience how communication evolved through the ages. There was the soft clay and stylus with which to try out the early Sumerian Cuneiform system developed c. 3000 BCE, a chance to crack the Viking Runic code, Roman Numeral Challenges and a chance to try out some proper handwriting with a dip pen.
Although already planning a fine array of activities, the Friends were up for including one more… the Printer’s Hat. We thought this would work as a good ‘holding’ activity if the press generated a queue. Apprentices traditionally made Printer’s hats from scrap paper before cleaning the machines. I spent a delightful afternoon instructing some of the Friends in the art of hat making. The hats piled higher as the room filled with laughter, and ourselves with tea and biscuits.
Time spent planning is seldom wasted so we all felt prepared for the weekend. There was the familiar pre doors opening sense of the unknown, would anyone come?
Thankfully, a lovely range of people did come over the weekend. Possibly not as many as was hoped for (the weather and growing trepidation of what became the pandemic had an impact) but those who came were engaged and interested. I had an enjoyable time talking to people and facilitating their inky experience. The magic of a barrier rope removed and being ‘allowed in’ to operate the press was palpable. I met some fabulous folk from the lady who came back to show me her father’s German stamping set to the young girl who brought back her brothers and gave them perfect instruction.
Visitors made connections to the place and the process. Some talked of family members who had been in the trade and left with a better sense of the importance and skill of the work and the labour involved. The activity gave a real sense of the aptitudes and attention required to do the job and understanding is always strengthened through doing. Ink had to be applied with a hand roller so care and attention was needed to get an even covering, the paper then had to be laid upon the inked up forme carefully and registered correctly. People were surprised at the exertion required to pull a print and make a good impression and big respect was given to the printers who had to do this 200 times per hour every working day. Some went away appreciating their computers a little bit more; others became nostalgic for earlier times when time and care was taken to do things properly.
I was delighted to receive the invitation to co-ordinate and facilitate this hands-on printing activity. Thanks to Elaine for all her help, Cate, Margaret and Gordon for their generous welcome, energy and ideas, and Helen Williams and the Scottish Printing Archival Trust for the initial contact and for the loan of the SPRAT interpretation panels and support. It was a pleasure to spread some inky joy by inviting visitors to use the press as it was originally intended.
Thank you Biggar, for affording me this opportunity!
Harrison, G, Printing for Everyday Life, The History of the Book in Scotland, V. 3, Ambition and Industry 1800-1880, Edinburgh University Press, 2007
Kamm, A, Scottish Printed Books 1508-2008, Sandstone Press, 2008
Scottish Printing Archival Trust: https://www.scottishprintarchive.org/
Scottish Book Trade Index: https://www.nls.uk/catalogues/scottish-book-trade-index/
Gen Harrison is a purveyor of inky joy. She divides her time between getting her own ink on paper (under the typochondriacs imprint), whilst encouraging others to do the same in her role as a print technician at Edinburgh College of Art.
Date: 5th Jul 2021 Back to Blog