Ben Franklin’s Legacy

On April 27, The Soapbox had the pleasure of showing some fourth grade students—lots of fourth grade students, actually—how to use a letterpress machine.

As part of a daylong event called Science in the National Parks, which was itself part of the Philadelphia Science Festival, several area artists and scientists put on demonstrations for the students who were visiting the park that day with their families and on class trips. Since, in Philadelphia, much of the national park is actually an urban historical site, the event took place in the heart of the city, in the courtyard behind the building where Benjamin Franklin had his print shop. This print shop is where he published The Pennsylvania Gazette and Poor Richard’s Almanack, and it’s a block away from Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed. That’s no non sequitur; without the printing presses of Philadelphia, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense wouldn’t have found its readers—and without the spread of his ideas, we might not have had a revolution.

The Science Festival invited the Soapbox to teach the students something about printmaking, so we carved a linoleum block with a charming design, packed up our tabletop letterpress machine (a Line-O-Scribe Proofing Press), and spent a sunshiny day helping hundreds of kids pull prints in bright-colored ink. All day long, we told the students a very abbreviated version of what went on inside Franklin’s print shop, then showed them how to use a printing press that operates using the same principles as the one he used. We asked them to consider how difficult and time-consuming it would have been to place every letter of a word—and paragraph, and page, and newspaper or book—one at a time … and not only that, but you had to spell them all backward!

With our help, each student inked up the block and pulled the roller over it, applying the pressure that would print the image onto the page. The kids smiled brightly each time we peeled the paper back to reveal the picture they had made—and most of them kept a close watch on the prints as they dried on the table, to be sure they took home the one they themselves had printed. Mechanical reproduction of this kind produces results that are reliably consistent, of course, but no two prints are ever exactly the same. When the printing press was a new invention, it mechanized written communication, taking it a step away from the intimacy of handwriting—but today, these old-fashioned printing technologies show the artist’s hand in a way that digital communications can’t.

The Soapbox is proud to participate in a long tradition of printing in the city where Ben Franklin worked, a city with a rich and colorful (and incendiary) publishing history. As these students learned, there’s a power in printing your work with your own hands—in pulling that heavy metal contraption over the words and images you placed there—that you can really feel.

Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Science Festival