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May 16, 2002


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Ralph Vetters
Wearing the traditional printer's apron and paper cap, Vetters points to past posters lining the wall of the Bow and Arrow Press.

HARVARD GAZETTE ARCHIVES

'No laptops allowed' at the Adams House printing press

By Ken Gewertz
Gazette Staff
Staff photos by Stephanie Mitchell

In this age of desktop publishing, on-demand printing, and more copy machines than pay telephones, it's easy to forget where the whole thing started, but a visit to the Bow and Arrow Press in Adams House is a good place to refresh your memory.

Johannes Gutenberg would have felt at home in this place. So would Ben Franklin. No digital fonts here. No lasers or ink-jets. This is moveable type in its original sense — little backward letters made from lead alloy, lying in wooden cases. You move them, not with a keystroke or the tweak of a mouse, but by picking them up with your ink-stained fingers and fitting them into a compositor's stick. And mind your p's and q's — in the original sense, that is. P's face left and q's right, the opposite of the way they turn out on the page.

Ralph Vetters Moveable type
With loving precision, Vetters aligns the type for a Bow and Arrow poetry contest poster. This is moveable type in its original sense — little backward letters made from lead alloy, lying in wooden cases.
Student sorting type
The ink-stained fingers of work-study student Hagan (below) sort type as she minds her p's and q's — in the original sense, that is. P's face left and q's right, the opposite of the way they turn out on the page.

Ralph Vetters '85 is the pressmeister here. Now a student at Harvard Medical School, Vetters became hooked on printing as an undergraduate when he made a poster for a roommate who was putting on a play, becoming acquainted with the Bow and Arrow Press in the process. He now has two printing presses at home in addition to the three at Adams House and is on the lookout for a good used Linotype machine, a complicated keyboard-operated affair that sets type automatically — the latest in printing technology, circa 1886.

Nothing pleases Vetters more than hearing that some old-time printing company is going out of business. It means that more of this wonderful, irreplaceable technology will be up for sale — trays of type or dingbats (not Edith Bunker, but decorative designs used at the beginning of a paragraph), logos, pictures, diagrams, or fine old presses like the Vandercook #4 that sits squarely in the shop's alcove with the authority and solidity of a block of granite.

Hung around the walls are examples of work printed in the shop — posters, greeting cards, poetry broadsides, and others that defy categorization. One of these might be the motto of the Bow and Arrow Press itself with its defiant affirmation of predigital technology. The letters are a little crooked, a little smudged, but the message is clear: "Keep yer stanky laptop outa here!"

Ralph Vetters and Elizabeth Hagan
Pressmeister Ralph Vetters (above left) and work-study student Elizabeth Hagan '02 create a press template. Vetters has two printing presses at home in addition to the three at Adams House.









Copyright 2002 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College