Don’t tell journeyman printer Pete Stinely his work is tedious; he’s been at it for 24 years!


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi, welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present. This stuff is new and you won’t hear it anyplace else. This is Behind the Scenes, where we let you meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns, and I mostly ask questions. This time I’m asking Pete Stinely, who is a printer at Colonial Williamsburg.

Lloyd:  While I know what a printer is, 18th century is different from 21st century, so what does an 18th-century printer do?

Pete Stinely:  Well, I guess for our modern listeners, what we discover in our shop is that many of the visitors coming to us somehow think printers are machines, but I’ll say very emphatically I’m a human being. We work for the master printer. Much of my day is involved with typesetting. We’ll have articles to go into our newspaper, certainly advertisements from the people throughout Virginia. And, we’ll take all the letters, assemble them, much how a modern person might do using their computer and their keyboard. But we will have much of our time spent spacing everything out properly so that we’ve come to the right measure in our lines.

Unlike the modern person, who never has to put letters away, we certainly have to replenish our cases, taking everything back apart once we’ve used it. I think that is what really amazes people is just how much time it takes to not only put something together, but take it apart, and I think the word I hear over and over again from our visitors is they tell me my job is very tedious, which is not necessarily a word that I would like to hear in over and over again in my work, but that’s their view of it.  

Lloyd:  My great uncle was a linotype operator. You work entirely by hand, right?

Pete:  Yes, and so where your uncle would have been sitting at a keyboard and typing letter by letter – what he would have as his finished unit would be a line of type. It’s a technology from the 1880s, designed and used for newspapers – massive changes in American printing as a consequence. And many of our older visitors know about that machine. But pretty much anyone born after 1970 wouldn’t have a clue what that machine was all about. They’d be more likely to know about computers, and, in fact, I’ve had people come in, and they see our printing press, and of course the person visiting thinks the press is the printer, whereas to me the printer is the owner of the business. And, they will ask me why I nail my printer to the ceiling, and I have to explain to them, well no, I am not going to nail my boss to the ceiling; he’d be screaming. And, just here again, they are missing the idea that the printer is a person as opposed to a machine.

We’ll bring them in to it and try to get them to realize just how different it all is. Certainly it is fairly simple for them to see the machine operate, and I think most all the visitors – even the smallest children – have used rubber stamps. And, essentially it is the same sort of concept. We use a backward-shaped image; we put a sticky ink on it and transfer it to paper though pressure. And, what’s different is the fact that, as I talked about earlier, all the effect that individual letters that we’re having to assemble. The fact that we do a weekly newspaper, whereas everybody expects us to somehow manage a daily newspaper in a society that is spread out as Colonial Virginia – that’s just not going to work at all.

Lloyd:  What attracted you to printing in the 18th-century style?

Pete:   Well, my father was a graphic designer. My introduction to printing was as a child. We lived right next door to the current printing office. I played in there. Family did their own silk-screened Christmas cards. Four-, five-, six-color Christmas cards, very involved.  So, the kids were involved with that, more running the copies into the dining room, and putting them on the floor to dry.

Eventually, when it was my turn to be a Boy Scout, I earned my printing merit badge – the only merit badge I ever got – and I certainly was dragged to many, many printing offices. And, in college, I just came to work at the printing office as a college student, working for the summers.  Really enjoyed paper-making, which is a trade we no longer practice here. But, it was quite a unique experience, and eventually there was an opening for me as an apprentice in the print shop. 

I certainly have enjoyed typesetting. I think that is probably the neatest thing of what we do is try to recreate a document that existed in the 18th century. The challenge for us is to do it well, and to really imitate the types and the very manner of the document, and then we sell them to the visitors, and I think we do contribute quite a lot to our visitors’ understanding of the 18th century. In fact, our visitors certainly in their own newspapers at home don’t read much about runaway slaves and things like that. And certainly our Gazette as a document, maybe a school child can take home with him, use it with their school-age peers, and I think they can understand a lot more about the 18th century from what we do.

Lloyd:  How long have you been there?

Pete:  Coming up on about 24 years, something like that.

Lloyd:  I would ask you if you enjoy it, but that would be sort of a silly question.

Pete:  Oh yeah, I enjoy it, but it’s just that word “tedious” that kind of gets to me after a while. I don’t perceive anything I do as tedious.

Lloyd:  Do you think it is a poor choice of words, and “time-consuming” might be more what they meant, rather than tedious?

Pete:  Oh yeah…well I’ll tell you a story. One afternoon, I was doing a task, really for the bookbinder, not the printer. I was folding book sections for a book that we ourselves had set and printed. And, I was folding the same section over and over again. I think for this particular book I’ve got 33,000 individual folds I have to make. In that afternoon, person after person came up to me and told me what I was doing was tedious. So, I started asking them personally what they did for a living. The answer I was getting over and over again was that the people were accountants. I couldn’t laugh when they told me… I found it quite humorous, because, that would be a trade that I personally would think would be, you know, to use the “t” word, would be tedious.

Lloyd: I hate to tell you this; my father was an accountant…

Pete: (Laughs heartily.)

Lloyd: …who very much wanted me to go into business with him, and I just couldn’t think of myself being an accountant for all those years. I would much rather set type by hand.

Pete:  When we have children come in, I try to get them to realize that their own parents are doing repetitive tasks; they are doing things that may not be the most exciting thing for themselves, it’s just that if you have your own children, you do what you have to do to provide for them, and 18th-century parents went through just as much – if not more – of what a parent today will have to go through to have and raise children. 

Lloyd:  The adults say the often-used word “tedious.” What do children say?

Pete:  I think they are really not caring too much about the type setting. I think what they get out of it is using the printing press, the very moment when they see the paper coming from the tympan of the press, when they see the ink is going on there. I think that is the thing that really grabs them. I think the word I hear all the time is “Cool!” You know, it is this kind of “aha!” moment, when they see a product recreated, and in very few of the trades do you have that sense of seeing something accomplished that quickly.

Of course, sometimes the word “cool” gets to me a little bit, and I’ll just say, “Well if you want to see us cool, just return in February; we are particularly cool in our shop in February.”

Lloyd:  I should think that would be sort of a warm profession – typesetting.

Pete:  Well, if you are doing the typesetting, you definitely want to be warm. Our difficulty is that if we are in a building that is heated from solely a fireplace, and the fireplace is across the room, and yet we are adjacent to windows so we can see what we are doing, well, our side of the room is not as warm as we would wish it to be.  Standing on a brick floor you’ve got your own little problems there trying to keep your feet warm. Really low temperatures affect our inks, and affects how paper reacts. So, in our business nowadays, our modern building, our recreation of an 18th-century building, it’s provided with modern heat, modern furnace, central air-conditioning, so our room is often much more temperate I think than it really would have been in the extremes of the seasons.

I imagine press work was just horrible in the 18th century. I always imagine slaves working the printing press would be very uncomfortable in July and August asked to print a great number of copies in a relatively short amount of time. I imagine they wouldn’t be wearing a tremendous amount of garments. But for us, we’re usually printing no more than maybe a copy a minute, so it’s nothing like the three or four copies a minute that two pressmen ought to do in the 18th century. 

Lloyd: Is that because you’re talking to people, or just…?

Pete:  It’s largely that. We are using the press as a way of drawing people’s attention. They certainly expect to see that. It is very difficult to try to be the interpreter in the room, and do typesetting and hold anybody’s attention, because very few people can actually see what your hands are doing. I mean, we’ll have some type cases within the room, and if somebody really wants us to break away from the press, we can go to the type cases and maybe set a few sample words, but most people really do not have the patience, I think, to really stand for much talk about typesetting. 

Lloyd:  They still call it a stick?

Pete:  Yeah.

Lloyd:  I learned to set type as a college [student].

Pete:  And yet but the stick you used probably was made out of metal, so why is it called it a stick?

Lloyd:  I have no idea.

Pete:  Well 18th-century sticks and earlier often were made out of wood. So that is why it’s called a composing stick. And what we are talking about is a tray of whatever material. And it defines the line width. So, as you are setting, many of the sticks are adjustable, so you can make different widths of line. Suppose next week, let’s say, our Virginia Gazette, we have run through all the paper dimension that we have normally purchased, and then using a smaller size, let’s say, we’ll have to modify what line measures we’re having so we accommodate the paper that we now have.

So, it’s a little bit different in the modern world where you buy paper of whatever dimension, and you cut it down to adapt your paper to the product, whereas in the 18th century, it’s usually the paper comes in set sizes and you adapt your product to the paper – kind of a different way of viewing it.

Lloyd:  You mentioned earlier that you are on the window side of the building so that you can see. Does that become an eye strain, trying to see it?

Pete:  Well, we do have some particular problems with the fact that we are working in a site where, in the 18th century, we would put our tools and whatever however we wanted, but since we are there to have visitors come in, we have to pull things back away from the windows to allow groups of people to enter. And, so, I don’t really find the light is particularly bad, unless it is raining. Our printer has been very gracious and acquired for us tin wall sconces, and the tin is quite shiny; it reflects the candle light particularly well, and we can move these things around in the shop to wherever we need them.

What I observe is that visitors seem to expect that if I’m working in the shop that I’ll illuminate the entire room, and yet if I’m working only in one corner, well, I illuminate where I’m working, I’ll illuminate where my hands are going to be, but I don’t have the wherewithal to illuminate a gigantic room, in fact it’s wasteful. We do have to be particularly careful with candles where we have our guests, because many of them are really unfamiliar with naked flames and are perhaps not mindful that they are wearing clothes that burn very easily. And that certainly was something in the 18th century people had to be particularly aware of. You often find printed shop rules surviving, where at the very end of all this list of what you are not supposed to do, it will say the last person leaving the office has to make sure all the candles are extinguished, so they were particularly careful around fire.

Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg Past and Present this time. Check often. We’ll post more for you to download and hear.