Glencairn Acquires Replica Gutenberg-Era Printing Press

Glencairn Museum News | Number 2, 2011

 

Glencairn's "Fenix Press," a replica Gutenberg-era printing press, is currently on exhibit in Glencairn's upper hall.

 

Commemorating the 400th anniversary this year of the first printing of the King James Version of the Bible, Glencairn Museum in Bryn Athyn will offer visitors an opportunity to see a full-size working replica of a Gutenberg-era movable-type press as part of the new exhibition, “From Gutenberg to Kindle: The Art of Bible Making.” The exhibition illustrates the history of Bible making, using both hand-lettered and mechanically-printed Bible leaves from the Museum’s collection.

Before Johannes Gutenberg (c. 1400-68) published his first Bible in the 1450s using his innovative moveable-type printing press, Bibles were generally available only in the form of expensive hand-lettered Latin manuscripts. Gutenberg’s invention marked the beginning of a revolution in printing that allowed everyday people to possess their own Bibles in their own native languages.

 

An Academy of the New Church Girls School student displays her printed page after taking a turn using the press.

 

“Gutenberg’s invention allowed books to be copied quickly and cheaply for the first time in history, which sparked a revolution in publishing,” said Ed Gyllenhaal, curator at Glencairn. “Today we're witnessing another revolution in publishing due to e-book readers like the Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble's Nook.”

The Gutenberg press brought together a range of new printing techniques, the most important of which was the casting of movable type from metal alloys. Pieces of type were arranged into a wooden frame and covered with an oil-based ink. The ink was transferred onto paper by means of a screw press, the form of which was adapted from a wine or olive press. This allowed the printer to create hundreds of copies in just a few hours.

The Gutenberg-style replica printing press, which Glencairn obtained last September for its permanent collection, will be used for a live printing demonstration at Glencairn’s Sacred Arts Festival on Sunday, April 10th. Allen Bjorkman, from New York State, who previously owned the replica Gutenberg press, will do the printing.

 

Allen Bjorkman inks the printing plate with a leather ink ball during a demonstration.

 

Bjorkman, a printmaker by trade, commissioned construction of the replica, which he calls “The Fenix Press,” by craftsman Richard Hicks of Cedar Crest, New Mexico. “Hicks made dozens of replica presses, during his lifetime,” said Joralyn Echols, Glencairn’s outreach and public relations coordinator. “Hicks and Bjorkman worked to make our press as authentic as possible. Bjorkman actually brought this very same press to our Medieval Festival a couple of years ago. He really appreciated our approach to education, and so when he was retiring and looking for a new home for the press, he thought of us.”

 

Richard Hicks in his workshop during the construction of the Fenix Press.

 

Hicks, now 88 years old, made approximately 30 replica printing presses during his lifetime. Bjorkman dubbed it the “Fenix Press” because it arose from the ashes of history, like the legendary phoenix. Bjorkman traveled with the press for many years, giving demonstrations at schools, museums, and Renaissance faires. Hicks modeled the Fenix Press on 16th-century traveling presses, which were smaller than a full-size Gutenberg press and capable of being quickly dismantled. Traveling presses, which were transported from town to town in wagons, played a key role in producing religious literature during the Protestant Reformation.

Made almost entirely of wood, a Gutenberg-style press delivers pressure through the use of a large center screw, which lowers the platen down to the paper when the lever is pulled. Some replica presses use a metal center screw, but for the Fenix Press Hicks painstakingly carved a two-lead screw from wood, which he believed to be more faithful to the original. Other design features were gleaned from the descriptions and illustration of Joseph Moxon, who published the earliest known printing manual, Mechanick Exercises on the Whole Art of Printing (1683-1684). The essential elements of the printing process, invented by Gutenberg and his associates, remained the same for centuries.