Letterpress gave my mom purpose, then time took it away

By Lauren Hansen

My mom doesn’t have a college degree; she’s worked in a hospital for going on 14 years. She got the job after she moved us out of our dad’s house, attempting to start living the life of a single mother.

Before that, I didn’t know much about her, until one day during a bi-weekly chat over the phone I mentioned this cool immersive-learning class I’m taking at Ball State University, where I get to learn bookbinding techniques and letterpress printing with the Book Arts Collaborative in downtown Muncie, Ind.

“Oh, letterpress, I used to do that,” she interjected when I began to explain what this seemingly ancient practice was that nobody in my class was familiar with before this experience.

Why she never told me this, I had no idea. There were some clues growing up, such as her incessant need to point out each and every typo she saw, or knowledge of how to spell words she didn’t even know the meaning of. All of which you wouldn’t expect from someone who edits books, not delivers patients to the operating room every day.

Usually during these catch-up chats she listens to me complain about my busy schedule or tell her what dinners I cooked that week, without really saying anything herself, except to dote on her black lab, Jet. But the more I asked about her life in the printing business, the more she chattered on about this enchanted life she lived amongst type.

My mom was a little worried about the fact that my class was downtown and off campus, which made me laugh because when she was my age, she moved across the country by herself to start a new life.

I learned she was mainly a typesetter at a newspaper in San Antonio, Texas in her 20s. Typesetters place the moveable type in the letterpress. Before that it was newspapers in Brownsburg, a town next to Indianapolis. My mom loved the high stakes of the newspaper’s schedule. She recounted with maniacal laughter all the times that one crooked line would ruin the entire thing, a half an hour before it needed to be done.

The industry then was mostly made up of men, at least her superiors always were, she said. Though she never really noticed if there was any discrimination, she was content with her nose in her type, and I don’t blame her.

I didn’t have to ask her why she isn’t one of those past-life printers that wander through our shop, admiring the type like windows into their pasts. As I listened intently to her talk about this secret life she used to lead in printing I figured out why: the dream died.

When she moved back to Indiana, there were no jobs for her, not one. Technology was updated and her position was declared unneeded. I can’t imagine what that would be like.

The only thing I can think to say after hearing her speak passionately about her first career love was “I’m so sorry.” I’m sorry for all the people who had to dig out new paths for themselves after their job was taken away from them by changing times. I can see it in the eyes of past printers that look us in our unwrinkled eyes and tell us to keep doing what we’re doing, keep printing and keep teaching.

My mom was a female typesetter with no college degree and had to give it up because the evolving world pushed her out. Now in an all-female class, I’m paying tuition to learn these techniques that she was thrown into and learned to love.

“That’s so cool, Lauren. You’re doing a cool thing,” she said before she hung up.

A week later I got a package from her with pepper spray for protection for this mysterious, off-campus place I’m learning letterpress printing, and a note that said: keep it up.

This piece was written by a Ball State University student and member of the Book Arts Collaborative in Muncie, Indiana. The Book Arts Collaborative is dedicated to preserving and promoting the apprentice-taught skills of letterpress printing and book binding through community interaction. It's not just what we make that matters, but how we learn from one another to make it happen.