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History of print pops off page at Angels Camp Museum

  • 6 min to read

While the Angels Camp Museum offers countless items of historical interest, only on special occasions can you see them come to life.

On the second Saturday of each month between September and April, the museum hosts Living History Day, when docents demonstrate 19th century technology at the Artisans’ Exhibits in the Mining and Ranching building.

On the afternoon of Jan. 11, Museum Coordinator Chuck Schneider stood just inside the front door to the building, advising a visiting family on the rules of a 19th century board game placed on a small table.

“We have people here on Living History Days that demonstrate, that actually show how it’s done,” he said. “People that come through, and just happen to come through on the day that we’re doing it, think it’s great.”

The exhibits include a carpentry shop, a print shop and a textile shop. Docent Bob Hillis staffed the print shop on Jan. 11.

Hillis is a perfect fit for the printing exhibit, having spent his career in the printing industry. He spent time in his youth visiting Calaveras County, and finally moved to the area from Calistoga after retiring in 2002.

“It’s closer to trout fishing,” he said with a grin.

Standing next to a large printing press built in 1885, Hillis recounted the history of printing in the Western world from Gutenburg to the present. The tools of the trade in a 19th century print shop were displayed all around him.

“The printed word did not exist prior to 1440, when Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type,” he said. “And at the same time he built a printing press.”

Hillis held up individual metal letters, which had to be placed by hand before a sheet could be printed.

“He built a press similar to this, but it was made out of wood,” Hillis said. “So first of all, he had to build the letters to make a form so that he could cast from it. And so he carved those letters individually, probably out of wood. Once he had that, then he could make the mold. So he made the mold, then poured the lead into it, then he cast all of the letters of the alphabet multiple times.”

Hillis described how the type was set up, ink rolled onto it and paper placed on top. It was then cranked under the press, and a lever was pulled to print one sheet.

“So basically, it’s a big job,” he said. “Over the years, of course, we’ve advanced in our composing.”

The Linotype machine, which allowed type to be arranged using a keyboard, was an important innovation that significantly increased the speed of the printing process, Hillis said.

“The Linotype machine came along in 1885,” he said. “Mergenthaler developed the Linotype machine, which has a keyboard and sets type for matrices. They come down, they get squeezed together and they go into a mold, lead is pushed into it and it forms one line of type.”

Others attempted to build typesetting machines prior to the invention of the Linotype. Hillis said that Mark Twain’s investment in a typesetting machine in the late 19th century had caused him severe financial difficulties.

“He was building a typesetting machine, which is basically how he went bankrupt, because he was diddling around with this thing,” he said. “He actually only ever made two of them, and whether he sold them or not, we don’t know.”

Hillis said that another big innovation in the printing process was offset printing, also known as photolithography, which was significantly faster and resulted in sharper images.

Hillis described the process in which a photographic image is transferred onto a thin, flat plate, which is mounted around a cylinder. Rollers apply water and ink to the plate cylinder which, in turn, transfers the image to a blanket cylinder. Paper is then fed between the blanket cylinder and an additional impression cylinder, creating a printed image.

“So that process came along in the early 20th century, and it was developed slowly over a period of time,” Hillis said. “Into the 1950s, there still was a lot of letterpress going on. Starting in the mid-1930s, some of the bigger shops were using lithography, but as it grew from there, it became less expensive and more available … Letterpress in a job shop was pretty much gone by the mid-1970s.”

Hillis said that offset printing is still used today, although the digital preparation of images has changed the process.

“By and large, any mass printing – if you wanted 50,000 of something, of a four-color brochure – that would still probably be printed by offset printing,” he said. “However, it would be digitally prepared. In other words, everything would be prepared on a computer. You don’t even have to go through the plating process anymore; it goes right on the press, digitizes right to the press. And then it’s printed by the conventional offset method.”

“Printing for a smaller number of items uses technology similar to that of home computer printers,” Hillis said.

“If you want 2,500 brochures for Angels Camp Museum, you get on the horn to the online digital printer,” Hillis said. “And they just essentially hit print. And it’s digitally printed; it doesn’t go through the offset process. They are sophisticated printers, granted; they’re not like your little (Hewlett-Packard printer), but nonetheless, it’s done pretty much the same way.”

Hillis and his friend, Bob Petithomme, designed the printing exhibit. While Hillis grew up working in his family’s print shop in San Jose, which was in business between 1901 and 2011, Petithomme worked as a kid in his father’s job shop in Angels Camp, Calaveras Press. The shop produced items for the Calaveras Prospect and the Calaveras Californian, which Petithomme’s father also owned, and were predecessors of the Calaveras Enterprise.

Several items from the Hillis family shop are now in the exhibit, as well as a treadle-operated hand press, once used by Calaveras Press.

“I can’t operate that one anymore, because you have to pump the treadle and then you have to pick up a sheet of paper and put it in, pull a lever that prints and keep pumping that treadle. And then when it opens up, you take that sheet out and put another one in, and so you’ve got both arms and one leg going,” he said, laughing. “I can’t do that all at once. I can rub my tummy and pat my head, but that’s the extent of it.”

The larger, Gutenberg-style press is actually for making proofs and ensuring against mistakes before production, Hillis said. The main difference is that the press doesn’t have a bracket for aligning sheets of paper.

“As we printers always say, doctors bury their mistakes,” Hillis said. “Printers’ mistakes are out there for the whole world to see forever.”

As part of his attire, Hillis wore a handmade newspaper hat. “This is not period; this comes later,” he said.

In letterpress newsrooms, lead was poured onto mats that covered cylinders that rotate at high speeds, Hillis said.

“When you go into the pressroom, the air is gray,” he said. “You’ve got this film of ink floating around in the air, and when a printer gets home at night, it’s not hard to wash ink off of your skin, but it’s a bear to get it out of your hair. So they would make one of these in the morning when they went in, wear it all day, throw it away when they went home and make another one in the morning.”

Hillis marveled at how far printing technology has come over the years.

“It was a lot more complicated before,” he said. “But it’s just like anything else. The pioneers that came across the country in their covered wagons couldn’t dream of somebody walking on the moon. Well, we’ve done that. So we’re advancing with technology in literally every field of endeavor today. If you don’t know anything about a computer, you’re probably in a world of hurt.”

Hillis said that he hopes the newspaper industry will continue on for years to come.

“I really like to hold a newspaper in my hands and read it, but I’m not probably going to be able to do that in five years,” he said. “Maybe it will take longer than that, but eventually it will all be online. And that’s too bad. But I’m 83 now, and I’m not going to live forever, and hopefully newspapers are going to be around as long as I want to read one.”

Education Coordinator Jim Miller said that the museum is in need of volunteers to keep the Living History Day exhibits going, and that it is difficult to find volunteer docents capable of operating the 19th century technology on display. Miller manned the carpentry exhibit himself on Jan. 11, while a volunteer couldn’t be found for the textile shop.

“I’d love to be in the carpenter shop building something, printing something in the print shop and actually weaving in the weaving station,” he said. “If that was going on, it would be the best of all worlds. We’re not there yet, but we’re going to head in that direction. It just comes down to getting people that are dedicated enough to take it to the next level.”

Miller said that the public has been enthusiastic about the exhibits, although the program is still in its infancy.

“We were kind of testing the waters to see how much interest there was publicly, and then eventually would build the program accordingly,” he said. “The public just loves to come and talk about it, so we do get a good response.”



Noah Berner has lived in Calaveras County most of his life, and graduated from University of California, Santa Cruz with a degree in history.

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