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Hot Type

Summer 1993 | Volume 9 |  Issue 1

In 1915 San Francisco threw a tremendous party—the Panama-Pacific International Exposition—to ratify the city’s recovery from the 1906 earthquake. Among the guests were several machines sent by the Lanston Monotype Company of Philadelphia to demonstrate the speed, fluency, and accuracy with which they cast type. These were in the care of a Massachusetts printer named George W. Mackenzie, and when the fair was over, he bought them and set up the first Monotype composition plant in San Francisco. Mackenzie printed mainly rate cards and timetables and the like—tabular work—but when he took a partner in 1924, the operation began to change. For Carroll T. Harris was a superb and imaginative printer, and in time he was supplying type not only to the great San Francisco printers—John Henry Nash, Edwin and Robert Grabhorn—but to the nation at large.

Then the world changed, and what had become the Mackenzie-Harris Corporation began shifting to computer typesetting, and the oldest and largest hot-type operation in America passed into the hands of a Midwestern businessman who didn’t care a damn about it. And that would have been that—except that those Monotypes had an unusual client.

Andrew Hoyem came to San Francisco about half a century after the Monotype machines. A prospective Columbia University graduate student seduced away from political science by the verse of Ezra Pound, he went to San Francisco, fell in with what he describes as “a little beatnik press,” and was caught up in the twin disciplines of literature and printing that would shape his life. He became a master of fine printing, worked in partnership with Robert Grabhorn, and assembled a near-definitive collection of lead type. In 1974 he established his own press—Arion—and started issuing superbly printed publications. Arion Press became Mackenzie-Harris’s largest customer, and when the foundry came close to perishing, Andrew Hoyem bought it.

Today the two linked concerns—Arion Press and M&H Type—share what must be one of the most attractive industrial sites in the land. In the front is a little museum, and in the back is the type foundry. In between is calm, orderly, concentrated work amid ravishing materials: leather; deep, nubbly, creamy paper; brass; and clean new silver slugs of lead.


Beyond the activity is the heart—or soul—of the place, the hundreds and hundreds of type trays. Each is identified by face—72 Shadow, Caslon Roman, Goudy Title. There are little drawers of special characters like the pointing finger that was a ubiquitous fixture on nineteenth-century handbills.

It’s called “the fist” in the trade, Hoyem explains as he leads me out of the world of paper into the world of metal. Here with steady insectile busyness the Monotype machines spit out new lead type. “You know,” he says, “someone called the Monotype machine the absolute epitome of the Industrial Revolution, because it’s so much more effective than what went before. It’s not only a beautiful thing, but what it produces is so aesthetically refined.” The machines’ beauty lies in the suppleness with which they do their job. They’re not picturesque like some old machinery; they go about their work with such purposeful efficiency that they have no look of the archaic.

They’re in the charge of Lewis Mitchell, a supremely capable foundryman who has been serving them for decades. “These aren’t Andrew’s,” he says happily. “These are my babies.” He shows me a survivor from Panama-Pacific days. “It’s not working just at the moment, but I use it every day. This one’s a bit newer“—just a bit, as it turns out (it bears the patent date of April 5,1919) —”and right now it’s making type for the University of Alabama. They like to keep their old press working.” He takes a piece of lead and drops it into the machine’s reservoir. It makes a gleaming silver rip in the gray, swaying surface. “That’s about 780 degrees of hot lead in there.” It gets fed into the matrix, where it takes its shape from brass alloy molds, then is ejected to join its fellows in a bright, thin file of type.

The machine gets its orders from a pierced paper spool. Mitchell takes me over to a keyboard, touches a key, and twenty pounds of compressed air slap it up to punch a hole in a tightly stretched roll of paper. “It works just like a player piano, only more complicated. It can do anything—spacing, justifying. … The original computers were based on Monotype units.”

M&H has twenty-three units, all earning their keep. The machines draw on typefaces assembled over the course of a century, and Arion Press sees that they are put to the best possible use. Nearby sits a display copy of an edition of Ulysses , one of 150 issued by Arion illustrated with original Robert Motherwell etchings. The books, produced by machinery that began its life printing interurban timetables, sold for seventy-five hundred dollars each.


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