Skip to the good stuff!


Elizabeth M. Harris

Elizabeth M. Harris 
Elizabeth M. Harris, former Curator of Graphic Arts in the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, is the 2006 Individual Laureate. Her varied publications record includes articles on 19th-century printing processes–compound plate printing, glyphography, nature printing, and map printing, to name just a few–and printing presses, such as The Common Press (with Clinton Sisson, 1978), andPersonal Impressions: The Small Printing Press in Nineteenth-Century America (2004). Harris’s innovative Smithsonian exhibitions on such topics as pochoir, printing for the blind, and American wood type are highlights of her distinguished career as an educator.

Introduction of Elizabeth M. Harris
Introductory remarks by David R. Whitesell

On behalf of the other members of APHA’s Awards committee—Julia Blakely, Patricia Fleming, and Jane Rodgers Siegel—it is my honor to present the 2006 American Printing History Association Individual and Institutional Awards for Distinguished Achievement in Printing History. I will not trouble you with details of our deliberations, other than to say how grateful I am to Julia, Pat, and Jane for their hard work and thoughtful counsel. One other person also deserves mention, and that is APHA Honorary Member Lili Wronker, who once again has provided the calligraphy for the awards certificates. Thank you, Lili! Oh, and I must not overlook APHA Executive Secretary Steve Crook, whose expert assistance is appreciated by us all.

Let me begin by asking: How many of you attended the 1991 APHA Conference in Washington, D.C.? I remember it well, not only because it was the first I attended, but because it remains one of the most varied and interesting conferences APHA has ever sponsored. An indelible memory is my visit to the National Museum of American History. There, by the printing and graphic arts displays, I encountered a group of children who were excitedly printing—not, mind you, with type and press, but with a fish! Before long a number of big APHA kids had gathered round, the more fortunate ones soon sporting their nature-printed T-shirts to envious friends.

The impresario of this scaly wayzgoose was none other than this year’s individual laureate, Elizabeth M. Harris, former Curator of Graphic Arts at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. My anecdote can only hint at why Elizabeth Harris has had a stellar career as scholar and educator. But let me tell you more, and rest assured that this is no fish story!

Elizabeth Harris came to prominence in the 1960’s with a series of influential articles on 19th-century printing and illustration processes. In these she demonstrated both the resolve and the expertise to tackle the difficult subjects that many avoided: compound plate printing, medal engraving, glyphography, nature printing, and map printing processes, to name just a few.

During the 1970’s Harris’s interests shifted from printing surfaces to printing presses. She collaborated with Clinton Sisson on the 1978 publication, The Common Press, an authoritative study of the Smithsonian’s 18th-century wooden hand press. Later Harris published catalogs of the Smithsonian’s remarkable holdings of printing presses and printing-related patent models. Her latest book, Personal Impressions: The Small Printing Press in Nineteenth-Century America, is both a definitive catalog of 19th-century small presses and an engaging study of their use by American amateur printers.

During her tenure at the Smithsonian, Harris was responsible for rescuing from oblivion many important artifacts and archives relating to printing history. As an educator Harris has had few peers, for her innovative series of Smithsonian exhibitions and catalogs on such subjects as pochoir, printing for the blind, and American wood type have introduced an entire generation to the allure of printing history.

Following her retirement in 1997, Harris returned to her native England. There she has set forth on a new adventure: that of raising goats and making cheese. I regret to say that her present responsibilities made a quick trip to New York problematic at best, and in the end it was not possible for her to be with us this afternoon. Although she cannot be here to accept the award in person, I hope that you will nonetheless join me in congratulating Elizabeth Harris for an exemplary life of achievement in printing history.

Elizabeth Harris has prepared some remarks for this occasion, and I will now call on Jane Rodgers Siegel of the Awards Committee to deliver these on her behalf.

Acceptance Remarks of Elizabeth M. Harris

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Greetings from Dorset, Thomas Hardy country.

I am enormously moved and grateful to the APHA for this award, and to the Awards Committee for conveying the news of it and now giving you my response. The news was a complete surprise, and it revived some beautiful memories that I will keep with me in my very different new world of goat and cheese farming, in this agricultural county of Dorset in the south of England. Many memories in fact, but I’ll mention just a few. One project that gave me particular pleasure was working on the history of printing for the blind — not only because I’ve always found languages in all forms to be intriguing and this turned out to be a rich field of them, but because I met and learned from some inspiring people, blind and sighted. Then, quite different, there was an exhibition on nature printing — the idea of getting an object to produce its own portrait has surely appealed to humans for as long as we have made pictures, if we can include that stencilled image of a hand on a cave wall. The nature printing exhibition came to life, I thought, with our weekly demonstrations of fish printing on t-shirts, but this activity divided my colleagues. Is it worthy of a museum of sober scholars to be squashing fishes on to t-shirts? Oh yes, I did enjoy that controversy. And finally, research into 19th century small presses, which spread over my last 15-plus years at the Museum, fed the puzzle-loving part of my head: it was fun, and full of little surprises and new friends, and if it wasn’t always easy that just made it better. I will add that the small press puzzle is certainly not solved. I hope someone else will take it up.

And now I’ve come to Dorset. Dorset has not just farmers but several good writers and poets to its name. Apart from Hardy himself, there was William Barnes, born in 1801 on a tenant farm, a bright lad who grew up to be a legal secretary, a minister of the church, a schoolteacher, a philologist, and a poet, as well as a sometime wood and copper engraver, and who finally bought some land and dabbled in farming again. He is remembered as a poet, but it is his philology that I like. He divided his poems between those in “national English” and those in “Dorset dialect.” Barnes grieved for the passing of the old ways of farming. I could tell him that not everything would pass: 150 years later his Dorset dialect survives, and I use his poems as a tutorial. When I arrived here I met my neighbour, a good farmer and a wise man, my own age, who had not set foot outside this county until recently. I liked him, but it took about a year for me to understand what he was saying because he speaks straight from William Barnes. He was quicker to understand me, but that wasn’t instant either. Not just the accent but the words and grammar of Dorset are different from “national English,” and they constantly delight me.

Several years ago I made some presentation to APHA, and I was at that time quite troubled by the thought that the historian who publishes is almost bound to modify history, not simply add to it, in ways that he may not intend. A museum may choose to collect and teach about everyday life in the past, as we did, but instantly those collected everyday relics cease to be everyday and become iconic: major records of the past. The work that Clint Sisson and I did on the Franklin Press seems to have spawned a host of Franklin press replicas, which is certainly a measure of success but, objectively, is it a good thing? Doesn’t it imply that the Franklin press is more important than other contemporary presses that survive? The very term “common press” is often capitalised (as Moxon did but for different reasons) and manages to convey not common but special. All this was beginning to bother me. My own version, I guess, of the physicist’s observation that in measuring something, you always alter it.

Well, I’m pleased to report that I was wrong. It is quite natural not only for historians to disappear, but also whatever they may consider to be their legacy. What remains is not in our own control. When I left the Smithsonian I decided to bequeath my ongoing research files to a colleague or two. I’m told those files no longer exist — and well, perhaps that’s not a bad thing. On the other hand I find that my personal printing past, the one in my head, refuses to be left behind. I try to be a cheesemaker, but keep turning back into a printer. The two cheese presses I use in Dorset, which I built from trees that fell in my Maryland woods (American black walnut, Black Locust, and Eastern Red Cedar) are unmistakably related to Ramage’s portable wooden presses, and like his printing presses they were designed to be dismantled and flat-packed for travel. Thanks to them, I feel I understand Adam Ramage better than I did when I was sharing a museum with his presses. And now that I am outside my old printing world there are other questions I would like to ask him, starting with — really now, Adam, why Honduras mahogany? I’m no longer so sure that it was tougher or more durable than his local woods: a woodworking neighbour tells me it is considered rather light among hardwoods. Was it fashionably exotic in 1810, and if so to what extent did Ramage himself create that fashion? Or was it just available in Philadelphia: who was importing Honduras mahogany, and who else was using it?

Back again to cheesemaking: when my first wheels of hard cheese needed to be dated and numbered I tried all kinds of clever devices but in the end I fell back on what now seems obvious: movable type. So I brand the cheeses with bookbinder’s brass type blackened in the flame of a candle (it’s better than printing type because, apart from the matter of lead and antimony in your cheese, type metal melts in a candle flame. It melts, in fact, at a lower temperature than some cheeses).

Printing history was my life for 35 years, and after all it still is. Printing, I am happy to tell you, will not leave you when you leave it.

Elizabeth M. Harris, January 2006
Posted with the author’s permission. Copyright remains with the author.

The awards were presented during the Annual Meeting of the American Printing History Association, on Saturday, January 28, 2006, in the Trustees Room (2nd floor), New York Public Library, Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street, New York City. A reception followed.