Many of the printers interviewed in Pressing On argued that presses are best preserved if they are used rather than stored or displayed in museums. I think this philosophy might be applied to most heritage items, with the caveat that antiques in use will hardly, if ever, remain in mint condition.
Heritage items preserved by consistent use will evolve through wear and tear. I used to work at JoAnn Fabrics, and I remember one lady who bought faux fur to repair a teddy bear from the 19th century; that bear is no longer the exact same bear as it was in the 1800s. It has been preserved, but not in its original condition. I find this impermanence a little disconcerting; the thought that sentimental things like toys, special blankets, or my favourite pair of socks might one day wear out and need repairs that could significantly alter their identities is a little scary. I imagine that on something more utilitarian, like a printing press, the replacements and repairs necessitated by frequent use are probably less noticeable. Though, perhaps if one were to sentimentalize a press in the same way as a teddy bear, one might be more aware of its identity changes.
So items in use will never be preserved exactly as they were when they were manufactured. Bits and pieces wear out over time and need replacing; these broken bits will usually have to be replaced with modern bits. I have a Singer New Home sewing machine from the 1940s; needles aren’t made for it anymore, so, when I inevitably break the needle I’ve got, I’ll have to modify a modern needle to replace it. But I think the mish-mash of old and new parts speaks to the time a thing has been through, its reliability, and the people who have owned and used it before. I think of that senior teddy bear and the hands it’s passed through; how cool it would be to gift it to a little boy or girl and say, “This used to be mine, and before that, it was your grandmother’s,” and so on. The process of use, wear, and repair gives an item a story, personalizes it, and connects its user with his ancestors.
I think when deciding whether to preserve something by using it or storing it, there are two warring sentimentalities. On the one hand, a sort of conservatism wants to keep something as it is forever; one thinks, ‘there’s something special about the way it is now and I don’t want to ever forget it or lose it.’ On the other hand, the process of using, wearing, and renovating marks an item with its history, tying its current user to the users before. I think for most things, a medium can be reached: use the things you want to preserve, but use them carefully. Some of the printers in Pressing On mentioned how important regular cleaning and maintenance of a letterpress is to its performance. They use their presses, but they are careful to keep them in good condition. If the same care is applied to any antique, I think most can be useful, and some even preserved better for being used.
“After Printing: The Crucial Step Between Stopping the Press and Tea and Buns.” British Letterpress, 2021, britishletterpress.co.uk/letterpress-guides/after-printing/. Accessed 12 Oct. 2021.
“How to: Use a Vintage Letterpress.” YouTube, uploaded by atplay, 19 Aug. 2015, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JJa5anhdmYs.
Pressing On. Directed by Andrew P. Quinn and Erin Beckloff, Bayonet Media, 2017.
2 thoughts on “Using and Preserving”
You are very correct about the difficulty of preserving things “as they are.” It’s nearly impossible, and we need to embrace change even while conserving such technologies. I specifically remember in the film the man who hooked up his computer to a letterpress. I think that is one example on preserving technology.
I love your outlook on preservation methods here; I’m a very sentimental person, so I find myself wanting to save and repair old things that once meant–and still do mean–a lot to me. I find myself at the crossroads you describe here: sacrifice some of the original for the sake of preserving it, or maintain the original but potentially have it lost to time. I love how you address a medium, where the old and the new combining gives us a tether to everyone who’s ever possessed an object of sentimental value; I think this “tether,” the connection you mention, is what draws so many people into learning how to use the letterpress. It comes with the knowledge that we are following in the footsteps of those who came before us.