Weekly Photo Challenge: “Inside”

The Typsetter’s Shop

Of all the fascinating things that I have so far seen in my illustrated adventure of life, this room is one of my favourites. I know that this place won’t mean much to too many people but to me, an artist with a passion for graphic design, photo-mechanical art, typography, fontography, printing processes, journalism and the recording of the human experience I felt like I was in some enchanted place.

It was my first trip to the Westfield Heritage Village in 2008 that inspired me to start a series; perhaps a life-project, on learning and showing how living in Canada used to be done socially and technologically before the age of atom-splitting, rocket propulsion, digital technology and communicating mostly by texting came into being. Additionally, my approach to the Hammer Home street photography project; exploring the history and heritage of each neighbourhood of Hamilton, had something to do with it. I also wanted to cover how those antiquated aspects of this nation continue to be remembered by some and forgotten by others. I think this is really something special because I’m seldom interested in things of past eras unless they have a strong bearing on predictions or mere imaginings of the future.

When I lived in British Columbia as a kid back in the 80’s, I enjoyed going to the Barkerville Historic Town on occasion but was disappointed in how those school trips were always so brief and too rigidly structured. There was no freedom to linger and explore in the way that I’ve always preferred. Much older, I went to Westfield with an opportunity to start investigating the nuances of the old ways of this country, and use my photography to connect those impressions and sensations with the textbook knowledge that many Canadians have been taught.

Westfield is a great example of preserving Canada’s early history. Whether you’re a Canadian or not, if you’ve never been to the village, get there. If you have been there, go again. The village is not a fabrication. It is an authentic village that has been restored to its 1800’s appearance, and continues to function as a living museum of early Upper Canadian life, history and style. The word “elegant” can certainly be applied to this 324 acre village that is operated by the Hamilton Conservation Authority.

Have you ever gone to a theme park, midway, museum or gallery and found that the people working there appeared, at best, listless, and at worse, openly bothered about being there doing their gig, catering to your amusement just to make a buck (that they’re only going to blow)? Even if you had any sympathy for their circumstances whatsoever, did you ever find yourself wishing, even if only just a little, that they would at least act like their heart was into what they’re doing? I promise you, that the fully costumed and trained volunteer interpreters at Westfield Village not only act like they care about their job performance but show that the preserving of these aspects of early Canadian culture is important to them. It’s not just a clever performance, it’s a special craft; an art.

Sure, there are genuine Mennonite communities throughout southern Ontario that clearly stand out as being “the real deal” but that’s not to say that the historical interpreters of Westfield are only able to put on a good show at playing the part of people who lived in the 1800’s and early 1900’s. They actually practice their crafts when at the village. They fully appreciate the things of long ago that the rest of us now only take for granted. When you talk to them (and every single one of them is always eager to talk to you about what they do and draw comparisons between past and modern living; the good and the bad of either), they have a way of causing you to appreciate both of what used to be the norm for Canada, as well as what those old standards have progressed into today.

I arrived to see the sorts of Playbill and Times in the old village press that reported marriages and crimes. The room was set up for an old system of print that was inspired by Gutenberg and survived quite a stint. The faint smell of black ink wafted through the air, and I was convinced to extend my time there.

The pressman gave a demonstration and I could certainly see that the old machine was an important means of recording history. Those who were easily bored left the house in remonstration but I and others stayed to observe in appreciation of what it took to document the news of yester year; the impetus of various laws that permit us to be here.

The printing press first came to Canada in the 1750’s. Technically, the nation of Canada didn’t even exist at that time. This land was occupied by the native Indians. Some of them allied under powerful governments like the Six Nations League and fearsome Iroquois Confederacy.

The Halifax Gazette, was initially published on Monday March 23, 1752. Over the next 50 years, this means of communication had spread westward. As the Indians and the white man all fought each other over the land, there was plenty of news to tell, and laws and agreements to draft and re-draft. Canada wouldn’t come into being until 1867.

Being both a 2D visual artist and a writer, I was tremendously drawn to this place. I photographed this typesetter’s shop at the Westfield Heritage Village. In its setup, it’s fairly typical for any small printing house found throughout North America and Europe during the late 1800’s to early 1900’s.

Obviously, I found the most captivating aspect of this little room to be the various sized cast metal sorts shelved on the wall. They leaped out at me far more than the antiquated printer that was in use. I grew up not just with an attraction to illustration but a strong fascination in how letters are stylized on signs and in magazines and newspapers. From very young, I attributed the aesthetics of letters and numbers to the particulars of writing ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and Japanese Kanji.

I was obsessed. In grade 2, my teacher reprimanded me for “wasting time” writing simple arithmetic in a style that resembled the numbers on LED watch faces every day. A little more matured, my college course in typography was nearly a religious experience in my graphics education.

Production in a shop like this was very laborious and time consuming. It is amazing to me to think that variants of sorts and other related typesetting equipment remained in fairly common use into the early 1960’s. This was a technological era when the world’s first Earth-orbiting artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, had already been launched, and JFK was pledging to put Americans on the moon by the end of that decade. The closest I ever came to writing anything in the way it was done in a room like this was with an old Olivetti manual (not even electric) typewriter that I actually used into the early 90’s.


15 thoughts on “Weekly Photo Challenge: “Inside”

  1. You have given us quite a detail description of your early experience and insight into Canadian history. I enjoyed your telling of the Mennonites, Indians, technology and more. You are a wealth of knowledge about subjects you are passionate about. Thanks for sharing.


    • I still like this version too but I have prepared a much starker and colder b/w version of this image that I actually prefer to this. Maybe I’ll show it one day.

  2. There is a lot of fascinating history in just this room. Wow, excellent photo and post. I have had always had a fascination with typewriters and being a writer as a child. The clanking noise was music to my ears. The only issue was that I was a slow typist. 🙂 I couldn’t keep with my mom when she typed.

    Again, wonderful post and thanks for sharing your Canadian history.

    • I used to love hearing the sounds of old manual and electric typewriters. To me, they and the sound of camera shutters opening and SLR mirrors flipping over were THE sounds that represented journalists and reporters. In my early childhood, I never imagined them being replaced by word processors. Fortunately, DSLR’s and large format digital cameras still sound like the good old toys.

  3. I am in absolute awe of how the typesetters worked so hard and with such dexterity to get these words and letters on to so many pages before the paper rolled to get it hot off the press. And it really wasn’t that long ago that this was how it was done! Good to know the craft is being preserved and surely typography, which we take so much for granted, will always remain an art.

  4. I love going to those places where they have preserved life as it used to be…and I hate being rushed through. Sometimes I could jst sit and look for hours

  5. Fabulous photo – and – you information is extremely fascinating. I loved to listedn to the old manual typewriters. I think they had a medlodic sound. The fact that they would all be played at once in an office setting created a symphony. I hope you do showcase the starker colder version one day.
    Nicely done ….

  6. It’s hard to imagine that villages like that still exist… I will never have the opportunity to visit it, but you did a great job describing it 🙂

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