Lab Report: Letterpress I: Composition

Kaitlin Kerr

Process Description

In our third lab of the year, we began the process “composing” our Twitter bot poems in moveable type. To “compose,” we first needed to choose our font. When we walked into class, the conference table was full with entire drawers of type. Each drawer was a different font, and our selection ranged from elegant italics to classic gothic. I wanted something simple, so I was drawn to a drawer labeled “18th Century Exp.” Not only aesthetically pleasing, “18th Century Exp” also had a sizeable number of E sorts. When composing my poem, I needed to be assured that I wouldn’t be left “out of sorts,” so checking to ensure I had enough of the most commonly used letter in the American English alphabet was a good gauge for figuring out if I had enough type to compose my 40 character poem.

Composers must “write” in a mirror image of what they want to compose. Composing in this reverse fashion takes a bit to wrap your head around, but if you focus on getting each individual letter in place, your text comes together quite quickly. In fact, I had my poem ready to go on my composing stick with plenty of class time remaining. With this extra time, I explored the possibility of incorporating an image. Because my poem has a floral motif, I used a woodcut rose. I thought that I could just stick the rose at the bottom of my poem, but I was quickly informed that I needed to make a solid square block so the printer could actually hold my type without it spilling out everywhere. To fill in the empty space, Professor Cordell showed me I could use leading instead of individual tiny spaces. Typesetting is all about creative solutions.


I was surprised by how quickly I composed my poem. Once I placed the first three or four sorts on my composing stick, I felt myself fall into a rhythm. I’d look at the cheat sheet that mapped where each sort was, locate it in the drawer, place it into my composing stick, and then start searching for the next letter. I thought that composing from right to left would be challenging, but I found that by searching for each individual letter composing became less about writing whole words, and more about building letter by letter. In other words, when I type on my keyboard, I don’t think about each individual key I’m hitting. I am so accustomed to the layout of my keyboard; I think in terms of complete words. For example, if I wanted to write out the word “letterpress,” I don’t think about the word in terms of “l-e-t-t-e-r-p-r-e-s-s,” I think the word itself, and then a combination of muscle memory and fifth grade typing class lessons take over. With moveable type, the building of a phrase is very different. Partially because I’m unaccustomed to the materials, but also because the interaction with every letter is quite different. When each letter takes up physical space, the construction of words takes another form within the mind of the composer. It very much becomes “l-e-t-t-e-r-p-r-e-s-s.”

I was also surprised by the creative problem-solving nature of composing with type. I believed that because I was crafting something that was already “written” by my Twitter bot, composing would be interesting, but not creative. I thought it was going to feel like copying and pasting from a Tweet into type. Instead, I was delighted to find that typesetting involves a lot of creative problem solving. For example, when I wanted to incorporate an image into my block of type, I filled in the dead space with leading instead of individual spaces. Instead of using the spaces in between lines of type, I was using a piece of technology in ways it was not intended to be used. I would love to see more ways people have used this technology in unconventional and creative ways.


I did not expect composing with moveable type would teach me this much. I expected composing to be a fun activity, but in actuality it introduced me to a new methodical way of thinking. With this new mindset, it became easier to conceptualize different ideas in the readings. Now that I have a better idea of what printing is like, it is easier to understand both the argument of Emily Faithful and the historical variances in copyright.

When I first read the line in “Women Compositors,” the English Woman’s Journal explaining women don’t need to know the text itself to be good printers, I was shocked. The line reads:

“The difference between a good printer and a bad one, is rather the quality of mind and the care applied to the work, than in the knowledge of the work itself” (Faithfull 39).

I was taken aback by the implication that women aren’t scholars of literature, and don’t need to be knowledgeable “of the work itself.” I couldn’t believe a feminist publication advocating for the inclusion of women in the printshop would exclude women from scholarship. However, if I think about my experience interacting with moveable type in conjunction with Faithfull’s claim, my initial reaction feels unwarranted. The set of mental skills required for setting type truly doesn’t require any knowledge of what the text means, all that matters is “the quality of mind and the care applied to the work.” Instead of recoiling from the implication that women aren’t scholarly, I can see now that Faithfull was establishing a low barrier of skills to entry into the printing field. By compromising the “feminist mindset,” Faithfull is actually using the established mindset to get women into the printing workforce. As a woman who is learning how to print, I can appreciate Faithfull’s argument in context closer to her own.

Before interacting with physical type, I couldn’t wrap my brain around the idea that historically printers, rather than authors, owned the content of a book. In my 21st century brain, I’ve only ever considered the author to be a creator of the novels I adore. In my previous conception of a codex, printers were an extraneous part of the process. This idea is altogether a product of my era, in fact, as Borsuk explains in The Book,

“In the sixteenth century, the exclusive right to a work was tied to the book object and belonged to the printer once he had purchased it from its author or complier” (98).

When I first read this, I was shocked that the author didn’t have more ownership over what they’d wrote. But now that I’ve interacted with type, and I have a better conceptualization of the work it takes to compose a book in moveable type. The idea that printers owned the content of a book makes sense in a historical context. Printers had just as laborious of a job as authors did. Simply thinking in terms of the amount of time each person put into their work – it is conceivable a printer spent just as long printing the book as an author spent authoring a book. With this consideration in mind, it makes sense that printers had ownership over the contents of the books they printed.