Typecasting in Boston

Metal type that has been inked at Firefly Press.

When most people hear the word “typecast,” they probably think of acting. But in fact, type was (and is still) cast in metal for use in printing. This centuries-old technology is alive and well at Firefly Press in Brighton, Massachusetts thanks to printer John Kristensen. Clients that come to Firefly Press are fans of traditional craft. John explains, “They like the look of letterpress printing, which is not only the bite into the paper, but also the typographic sensibility that comes from using actual metal type rather than plastic printing plates.”

John Kristensen pulling out a galley of type at Firefly Press.

At Firefly, the majority of type used in printing is generated using Monotype and Linotype typecasters — wondrous, complicated, mechanical devices perfected in the late 1880s. Once the industry standard, they have been largely replaced by computer typesetting — also known as “cold type.” In “hot lead” typesetting, molten lead is formed into individual or lines of type on these machines. Below we see Jesse Marsolais working at the keyboard of a Linotype. Near the bottom left, you can see the “lines” of metal type that the machine has cast.

Jesse Marsolais at the Linotype.

In a letterpress shop like this one, the design of a printed piece develops through the maniputaion of physical materials. John elucidates why working with tangible letterforms can be so gratifying, “. . . it is just that it is so satisfying to do. It is so direct, it is so hands on, it is so immediate. You learn so much and you communicate so much through your fingers: the wisdom of hands.”

Firefly has earned the reputation of printing finely designed work that is always appropriate for its purpose — broadsides, business cards, certificates, stationery, and what John calls special occasion printing. By this he means printing that is celebratory and purposeful — like announcing the birth of a child or thanking the people who have just given millions of dollars to your museum.

In addition to being a talented printer, John is a wonderful speaker. He will be giving a lecture (free & open to the public) next March. For a link to that event, visit the American Printing History Association.

Have a comment? Send me an email: maggie.holtzberg@state.ma.us

Photos by Maggie Holtzberg