October 22, 2020 – Christine Picone, Designer at Bowne & Co.
Hello from Bowne & Co., South Street Seaport Museum’s 19th-century printing office! We’d like to share a peek into our collection and show you what we’ve been working on lately.
While the Printing History and Manuscript and Ephemera collections at the Seaport Museum contain thousands of historic postcards, handbills, and other printed ephemera, we also house a working collection of printing equipment that was once used to produce such items. Using our collection is fundamental to the preservation of our equipment, and Bowne & Co. is one of few places to see live letterpress printing in New York City.
One of the most fascinating things about our collection—both the equipment and the printed items themselves—is that little of it was ever intended to end up in a museum. Our printing presses and moveable type are industrial objects, designed to withstand a lifetime of commercial use. And the printed items in our collection are not fine art, but ephemera: pieces that were meant to be used for a short time and then discarded.
The broadside above from our collection advertises steamer trips between New York and New Haven, Connecticut. The departure locations and times are specific, so it would only have been useful for as long as that information remained accurate; then it would have been thrown away. But in the same way we might hold on to a ticket from a memorable concert or neglect to recycle a stack of takeout menus, someone saved this broadside, and another record of everyday life in 19th-century New York is preserved.
Simply put, broadsides are large pieces of paper printed on one side. They are the predecessors of modern-day posters in both format and purpose, announcing events, advertising goods for sale, and advocating for social causes. Designed to catch the eye from a distance, 19th-century broadsides increasingly featured large, expressive lettering, showcased elaborate illustrations, and were sometimes printed in multiple colors.
Printing broadsides is one of our favorite activities in the printing office because we can do so much of our work while interacting with visitors. Using our working collection is the best way to show our technology in action, and along the way we discuss the vital services provided by printers in commercial districts like South Street Seaport. Over a few weekends this month, we printed in view of the public (in social-distance mode) for the first time since March!
With Election Day approaching on November 3, we decided to join the Rise Up, Show Up, Unite! project initiated by lettering artists Jessica Hische and Adé Hogue. We designed a series of three posters to promote voting, printed them live on Water Street, and gave them away to a few hundred friends, neighbors, and visitors.
It was an occasion for many enriching and important discussions. We were pleased when design choices reinforcing our concept—“show up” being printed several times, in many colors, for example—were noticed. We talked about the central role of printers in many social movements. It was a subversive thrill to note that we were printing voting posters with artifacts that predate the right to vote for women and people of color. We began to explain the importance of voting to children, and they finished our sentences.
We hung the broadsides in our windows. We hope they will be slightly less ephemeral.
Browse more printed artifacts in our collections here.
For more information about Rise Up, Show Up, Unite! follow @riseupshowupunite and #riseupshowupunite on Instagram.
Most importantly, VOTE! Go to https://howto.vote for comprehensive information on how to vote in your state.
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While the Museum’s indoor spaces remain closed to the public, we are continuing to serve our community in safe and engaging ways by developing and delivering virtual programs like this one, at no cost. Help us make this work possible.