An old-fashioned printing press cash on demand modern characters: @ and #

CHICOPEE, Mass.— John Barrett has decided to gather some information on the printing press. “Have you noticed an interest or a need for hashtags? He asked a customer he was showing around Letterpress Things, his 6,500 square foot store in a former paper warehouse in Chicopee, Mass.

Mr. Barrett’s business is proof that in the digital age there is still character in things made the old fashioned way. His clients still composed type by hand, often using old type and material salvaged from old printing houses. But the growing demand for symbols like @ and # in today’s communications has created problems – and opportunities – for enthusiasts of this centuries-old medium.

Typography is the process of printing characters and graphics from an inked, raised surface – the method used in ancient Chinese scrolls, the Gutenberg Bible, and prints until it was slowly replaced by photomechanical reproduction during the 20th century. Letterpress printers today prefer the era of movable type, in which each letter or character is individually made of wood or metal.

Typographic symbols @

Mr Barrett, 73, a former Strathmore Paper advertiser, began receiving inquiries from customers who wanted to add the # to their personal stationery, business cards or invitations. He realized that what was known as a hashtag could be repositioned and sold as a hashtag. Capitalizing on the trend, he ordered a variety of sizes for sale at a wayzgoose, or printers’ salon, in San Jose, California.

“There you go, I sold a bag,” he said. He has since sold eight or ten.

“No one ever wanted this stuff before,” says Edward Rayher, whose type foundry, Swamp Press, in Northfield, Mass., Produced the metallic character pieces for Mr. hashtag kits. Barrett. “The ‘at’ signs came first,” about 10 years ago, he says. “It was our first time doing the hashtags.”


Photos: Inking type

Typography enthusiasts show that even in the digital age there is still character in things made the old fashioned way.

Or it’s. @ Symbols created by Swamp Press for Letterpress Things in Chicopee, Mass. Help meet the growing demand from old-fashioned printers and their customers for typeface to print email addresses.

Julie Bidwell for the Wall Street Journal

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Patrick Reagh, 66, a seasoned printer from Sebastopol, Calif., Is a savvy reseller in this growing market. He started by selling packages of “at” signs under the P @ ‘s @s label, which he sells on eBay. “I’m surprised they actually sold quite well,” he says. Now he too has moved on to hashtags. He says his smartly packaged product, at $ 42 a box, is “as they say: #good deal.”

In his recent book “Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks”, Keith Houston notes that the pound sign, or sharp, is derived from the abbreviation “lb”, in Latin pondo balance. Libra means scales or scales, pondo means to weigh. At the end of the 14th century, “lb” acquired a line drawn above the middle of the letters (a compound example dates from 1698).

Finally, lb with a line became #. The rise of the symbol began in 1968 when it was selected for the keypad, designed by John E. Karlin, industrial psychologist at Bell Labs. The symbol would have been familiar to users of typewriter keyboards and was selected, with the asterisk

or star. Then, in 2007, the pound sign was adopted as a means of grouping messages by Twitter, the online social networking service.

Bryan Baker, 36, is the printer-in-residence at Signal-Return typography studio in Detroit. He uses his @ symbols so often for printed email addresses, they wear out quickly. The printers of the same boat will sometimes replace the @ by a dingbat, a printer’s ornament absent from a standard keyboard but which is found in abundance in the collections of old characters. They can get away with it, says Baker, because people don’t really see the @ anymore. He saw stars, balls, triangles, lilies and even little turkeys serving as replacements. Another solution is to spell out the word “to”.

Strangely enough, the limitations of the type of handset often result in more exciting and innovative designs. “It’s harder to be derivative,” says Baker, because the first easy fix isn’t always available as it would be on a computer.

“There is something magical, almost mystical, about the creation of the printed word,” says Mr. Barrett of Letterpress Things, “When a person sees something that has been printed in letterpress, there is sizing there , there is a depth. You don’t just see a flat surface like a magazine page, you are now… looking into a space.

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