A Red Letter Day

It feels so good to sit and down with a hot latte, even though I performed only a tiny part of the cleanup. Bowne & Co. Stationers and Printers, like so much of South Street Seaport, suffered a five foot surge during Sandy, with two and a half feet submerging its invaluable stock of letterpresses and type. Bad timing, since they’ve just been expanding their print shop.

The streets and subway platforms of downtown Manhattan, I saw on my way there, still bear patches of wetness from the deluge two weeks ago. Passing an upended, truncated tree at Water Street, I reached the shop.

Arboreal Sandy Victim

Stalwart printers Gideon Finck and Ali Osborn were guiding volunteers in a makeshift, laborious, meticulous process of bleaching wooden cases to erase their lacy spots of mold and cleansing lead type to make it usable again.

Gideon Organizing Type

Bowne & Co. is the oldest business in NY surviving under the same name; merchant/philanthropist Robert Bowne set up shop in 1775. (Pretty sure he was one of Edith Minturn’s forbears.)  The Seaport restored the shop as a facsimile in 1970 with the flavor it might have had 200 years before before, when it would have turned out gilt-edge letter paper, tissue paper, copying paper, blank books, bill books, cargo books, bankbooks and seamen’s journals. Some of Bowne’s presses date back to 1844.

A Bit of Poe from Bowne

I’m dipping metal letters a few at a time in fresh water, then mineral spirits, then towel drying each one. A cold, oily, dirty business. The shop has 1200 cases of type, so it’s quite an enterprise, especially out on the sidewalk in a bracing, buffeting wind. But if each letter is not cared for, the historic fonts will disappear. So far, all has been salvaged.

Inside the building, in a shadowy back room with a gently buckling floor, I find an immense, robustly carved figurehead and a quantity of  rough grey planking – the hull of an ocean ship, it turns out.

I wash the oil off my hands, thinking of a young Herman Melville, the same age as the printers at Bowne, looking out at the bay, sighting along the horizon, awaiting his first seagoing job as a “boy” on a New York ship bound for Liverpool. He’s clutching a letterpress broadside as if his future depends upon it.

1 Comment

Filed under History, Jean Zimmerman

One response to “A Red Letter Day

  1. Lori

    I’ve never been to New York.
    I had the opportunity to go once with the Washington State University Concert Choir. I was in the alto section. We were asked to go and perform Mozart’s Requiem as part of a larger choir composed of other university concert choirs from around the nation. It was an invitation only thing, but I declined to go. I could not afford the plane ticket, the meals, the room at the hotel, and all the other trappings. I was in the Naval Reserves at the time, going to school to get a degree after getting an Honorable Discharge from active duty, and I didn’t have that many coins jingling in my purse. However, I did go to all the rehearsals for the performance while the choir was yet on campus in Pullman, WA, and I purchased a full copy of the Requiem, which I still have. I sent my copy of the music along with the choir director in case somebody needed it while in New York. At least it got to go to New York.
    The choir director gave me extra credit for having a good attitude about not going.
    I digress.
    I meant to say that I’ve always been curious about New York. I’ve gone there via Google Earth and marveled at the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, the Chrysler Building, and a number of the other sights. Wonderful and amazing.
    Your pictures and descriptions of the places you go, your thoughts as you go about doing what you do, all give an insight that I would not normally have.
    While I was in the Navy I always tried to go to the places where no sailor had gone before. I set foot inside bars exactly twice when my ship was on a 7 month cruise. My goal was to meet the REAL people, taste the REAL cuisine, see the REAL country. I didn’t want to be another tourist-y sailor with a camera. When we were in port I always went as far away from the ship as I was allowed (“within a radius of 50 miles. Otherwise you will be counted AWOL and disciplinary action will be taken”).
    I write these things so you will understand my full meaning when I say I am delighted to see your pictures and read your thoughts. The link to the shop where you worked has been explored. It is a shop that will be on my itinerary should I ever get to your shores.
    Thank you! — Lori

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