Private Press: Printers Who Never Say Die

The opportunity to print by whim and at leisure has long attracted professional and amateur printers, resulting in the production of a good deal of very fine printing indeed—and even more which could qualify only as schlock printing.

The present era has witnessed a tremendous growth in this private press movement, stemming from the vast interest in printing as a craft generated in the 1890s by the Kelmscott Press of William Morris. Many more such endeavors, but more importantly the Doves Press of T.J. Cobden-Sanderson and the Ashendene Press of C.H. St. John Hornby, were supposedly non-commercial, not always the case with such undertakings.

But all of these presses tended to be rich men’s toys, and while they often produced superlative printing, they were generally operated by professionals hired by the gentlemen owners.

The present excitement about printing privately has been generated, on the other hand, b shoestring operators, or at best people who have to watch their costs very closely. Like most hobbies wistfully begun in hopes of making a smidgen of profit, they tend to sustain a considerable loss for their practitioners.

Busy production printers have rarely been sympathetic to the private press concept, looking upon it as possible competition and furthermore contributing to a lowering of standards. Both attitudes indicate a complete lack of understanding of the purposes of presses in the first place.

Possibly the private press printers have contributed to such misunderstanding because all too frequently they cannot explain their motives even to themselves. Will Ransom, who wrote the best book about private presses away back in 1929 (Private Presses and Their Books) mentioned one happy-go-lucky character named Edwin Roffe, who in 1861 produced this bit of doggerel:

I must confess,
I love my Press;
For when I print,
I know no stint,
Of joy.

It would be hard to think of a happier sign to put over the door of any private press. It certainly expresses a commendable attitude, making it difficult, in fact, for any Philistine to criticize such an endeavor.

In spite of the long tradition of literacy in the printer’s craft, most private press printers become tongue-tied when they attempt to describe the rationale for slaving away in drafty basements, stuffy attics, or icy garages. Very few of these operations are located in opulent surroundings, although I can think of one which was in the Sutton Place apartment of the advertising executive Norman Strouse. One envious competitor stated morosely that Strouse’s press had the highest overhead of any private press in America.

What really prompted me to comment this month about private printing was the fact that I have had on my desk two little books which express most adequately the viewpoints of two professional printers who work at their jobs all day doing what is demanded of them. Then at nights and on weekends they print for fun.

The two private presses are The Adagio Press operated by Leonard Bahr in Harper Woods, Michigan, and the Press of the Nightowl, run by Dwight Agner in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Mr. Bahr is employed with a firm of advertising typographers in Detroit, and Mr. Agner is production director at Louisiana State University Press. Both are private printers of the first rank and their work compares favorably with anything that has ever been produced under private press auspices.

Besides being good printers, Messrs. Bahr and Agner fortunately possess the ability to state eloquently the case for the existence of a private press and are thus well able to justify the laborious hours they spend at their hobby.

Mr. Bahr entitles his exposition, “A Manner of Speaking,” a beautifully designed and meticulously printed booklet of just 24 pages. He writes: “The Adagio Press is a spare time printing activity one purpose of which is to pursue the practice of typography as an end in itself. It was started in 1956 because of the fascination with fine types and unusual papers, and it continues because of a desire to use them in the printing of small books and pamphlets.”

He goes on to say: “But what of typography as an end in itself? When I use this phrase I am thinking of two aspects of typography. The first excludes typography as a trade and typography as a profession. It means simply, typography as an activity: the pursuit of pleasure and satisfaction. The second aspect refers to what is generally described as pure typography—the use of typographic materials such as letters, rules, and cast ornaments in the preparation of a printed piece. Looked at in this two-fold manner, typography is as challenging and stimulating an activity as I can imagine.”

Bahr proceeds in several short chapters to explain his philosophy as a private printer, discussing types, composition, refinements, presswork, paper and binding. He prefers foundry type, hand-set, as a personal preference and has settled upon Palatino as the basic font for his press, with other favorites being Athenaeum, Codex, Torino, Romanee Cursive, and Menhart. Of the selection of a type for such a press as his own, he states: “Economics limits the number of choices open to him (the average printer), so his selection must generally be made on the basis of the mileage he can extract from a given design: how close he can successfully come to giving the one or two decisions open to him relatively broad application.”

In discussing the refinements he brings to his typesetting, Mr. Bahr notes further: “. . . I would hope that this kind of attention to detail doesn’t imply a purely perfectionist approach to printing, or a detail-for-the-sake-of-detail attitude, the result of which is a magnificent, self-conscious sterility. I won’t attempt to rationalize a concern for the details of typographic refinement. Either one has a feeling for them or he doesn’t; either one thinks they make reading more efficient or they are an unnecessary affectation.”

All printing at The Adagio Press, located in the basement of Mr. Bahr’s home, is done on platen presses. Depending upon their orientation, the selection of the press is considered by many private printers to be the most important part of the production scheme. It therefore frequently becomes a controversial point when they gather to discuss their hobby. The purists tend to favor the hand press, with first choice being the venerable Columbian, but if such a real antique can’t be located, they attempt to pick up an Albion. As a last resort to sturdy old American, the Washington Press, will have to do. But don’t bring in “machines”!

At The Adagio, platen presses are favored: a 12×18 C&P Craftsman and two hand-lever presses, a 6×10 C&P Pilot, and a 8×12 Golding. Mr. Bahr defends his choices: “The Craftsman is ideal for m purposes. It has a stronger construction than the average platen, and it has four form rollers, which assist immeasurably in achieving even inking . . . . However, even though the press is capable of handling a large form of two or more pages, I prefer to limit my press runs to a single page. In this way, makeready is reduced to a minimum and the small amount of ink used for each impression makes uniform inking somewhat easier to obtain.”

I would like to continue next month with this glance into the pursuit for perfection in printing that is the fundamental philosophy of the private printer, as expressed by two fine American presses which successfully operate within the limits of a grand tradition.

This article first appeared in the “Typographically Speaking” column of the April 1977 issue of Printing Impressions.

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