University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries

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Celebrating Silver Buckle Press

by Courtney Becks

For fans of typography and print history, Silver Buckle Press, located on the second floor of Memorial Library, is a resource that is both charming and vital to the preservation and the celebration of print and printing. Silver Buckle Press is a working museum of letterpress printing – a living archive of materials and process.

Letterpress printing involves the actual setting, inking, and impressing of pieces of type in a printing press—creating an artisanal print a world away from the quotidian office inkjet.

Press History

The University of Wisconsin Libraries acquired Silver Buckle Press from the estate of Robert Shaftoe, an art director at the Ford Company and printing hobbyist, in the early 1970s. According to its director Tracy Honn, one of the most important things about Silver Buckle is that its holdings are “not behind glass.” Its mission, she said, is to be a demonstration and education lab.

Silver Buckle Press Today

Rather than collecting dust, Silver Buckle collects fans. For students and scholars in departments like English and art, Silver Buckle Press is, well, the gold standard.

Katie Garth, a graphic design student, is the current Printing Assistant. “On a typical day, I might distribute type, assist in print production, perform research for upcoming projects, or help Tracy prepare for tours and other visitors,” she said. “My understanding of letterpress printing was initially informed by my study of graphic design, which led me to take an interest in book arts and printmaking.” Also, she found the draw of “set[ting] type  away from the screen and combin[ing] the design process with fine art printmaking” hard to resist.

Collection Highlights

But how to determine the Press’ pièce de résistance?

Honn is understandably proud of Silver Buckle’s specimens of Van Lanen, a typeface the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum (less than 100 miles north of Milwaukee) commissioned Matthew Carter to do. And so Carter, the MacArthur Fellowship-winning type designer who gave the world the Verdana font, created his first wood type—which is named after the Hamilton’s founder Jim Van Lanen. Silver Buckle is one of only three institutions in the U.S. that own the Van Lanen typeface.

Honn also directs the visitor’s attention to what could forgivably be called the most adorable printing press anyone has ever seen. The Sigwalt No. 11 press is a tabletop model used by amateur journalists in the 19th and early 20th centuries. “They [did] the same sort of thing bloggers do,” Honn said. “We’re coming back around to a sense of doing it on your own.”

Visit Silver Buckle Press for more information about the press, its history, and current activities. To view rare historic materials, visit the Silver Buckle Press Collection in the UW Digital Collections.

Images courtesy of Silver Buckle Press.

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