Printing in Palmyra

by Sally Larsen

The trip from Newark to Palmyra was serene.  We left the dock shortly after 9:30, and the day was already shaping up to be a real scorcher.  The trip was smooth – no locks to go through – so we were able to enjoy the flocks of mallards and schools of flashing silver fish.  The great blue herons notice the fish too – they were plentiful in this section of the canal.

Lulled by the relaxed tempo and interesting wildlife, I was surprised when Palmyra appeared quite suddenly on the port side.  Roger skillfully threaded the Lois through the shallow and narrow entrance to the Port of Palmyra and gently guided her to the dock.

After all was secured, Tom and I explored the town, passing many beautiful buildings dating back to the early 1800’s.  An open door caught our eye, and we stepped inside Experience Press.  We were greeted by Mark Burris, who welcomed us and explained the workings of the print shop.

Experience Press
Experience Press (photo: Tom Larsen)

There were two huge hand operated presses, both typical of presses made in the 19th century.  One was made in Palmyra; the town used to manufacture printing presses which were shipped via canal boat to various parts of the country.

The print shop is unusual because all of the type is hand-set.  This is an exacting and time-consuming process in which each letter is picked out individually.  The actual printing is an arduous multi-step process, involving inking, pressing what is called a proof to check for errors, and then moving everything to a different press, re-inking, and pressing it out.  Once all the pages are pressed, they are sewn together and then trimmed.

The books printed here are bound in the shop as well, using period correct vegetable tanned leather, with gold leaf detailing.  The entire place was a step back in time – particularly interesting because Experience Press is a working print shop, using techniques and machining that could have been in use at the time the canal was booming, to create replica first edition books that were printed around the same time.

Sal Larsen
A graduate of Weslyan University, Sal has been a member of the museum for many years.  This is her first time as a volunteer aboard the Lois, and she has fulfilled a lifelong dream of helping crew on a tugboat.