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Slugs, Dingbats, & Tramp Printers!
Printing in Santa Clara Valley

New exhibit uncovers history of the written word in Santa Clara Valley
INK-STAINED MYSTICS? The Pasetta House's new exhibit features a photo of Rosicrucian Press employees from 1931.

Beginning April 18, those who parade up the steps to the Leonard & David McKay Gallery at the Pasetta House in History Park will witness an exhibit specific and totally unique to San Jose. And what a title: Slugs, Dingbats, & Tramp Printers! Printing in Santa Clara Valley.

The Pasetta House is not huge—the gallery is only a handful of rooms—but visitors will take away a worldly bouillabaisse of printing technology and how it all contributed to the evolution of this valley. From the I-Ching to Adobe Postscript, from Chinese typewriters to METAFONT, the show harmonizes east and west, just like Silicon Valley. In pure San Jose fashion, plenty of interesting stuff lies beneath the surface in this show. One has to dig deep, as if tearing apart a daisy wheel printer to see its glorious innards, which in fact, visitors can actually see in one particular room.

What's more, the gallery is named after Leonard McKay, the late historian who also helped run the Smith-McKay printing empire longer than I've been alive. History is printing. Printing is history. And they both repeat themselves in this exhibit.

So, in what seemed like a natural trajectory, I gravitated straight to the I-Ching. In one room, carved woodblocks rescued from San Jose's Heinlenville Chinatown a century ago sit beneath a glass case. The blocks feature Chinese text from the I-Ching, enabling folks to create paper versions of the classic passages. Heinlenville was located where today's Japantown now sits. In the case next to the blocks we find a hardback print version of the I-Ching, along with text panels. In another room, a Chinese typewriter gifted by state Assemblymember Kansen Chu sits underneath another glass case. The typewriter tray holds about two thousand Chinese characters. There is no keyboard. Operators maneuver a lever that grabs a device over the chosen character. The character is then moved into position over the paper and is printed. A good typist can type about 20 characters per minute.

The threads of local history inherited from Spain and Mexico also reveal themselves in the show. Augustin V. Zamorano, a government official in Monterey, imported California's first printing press, a small "seal press" whose woodblock type prints only 100 words at a time. Maybe it was the Twitter of its day.

Machinery also dominates the exhibit. Archaic versions of the typewriter occupy one room, as if meditating underneath glass cases. The keyboard from a real-life linotype, "The Eighth Wonder of the World," enables visitors to play its keys like a piano of sorts, only imagining the room-sized machine from its depiction in a photo. Miniature hand-size typesetters from half a century ago are also on display, as are numerous slugs and lettering components from typeset machines of ancient times.

By the time designing labels for the canning industry had given way to Silicon Valley, along came Xerox PARC and Adobe, both of which spearheaded what led to the desktop publishing industry. Adobe, in particular, inherited people from Xerox PARC and led the way with digital fonts, PostScript and then the portable document format (pdf), which forever changed the way we live. Thousands of fonts and options were now available, allowing anyone to do things that were once limited to skilled trade individuals.

Speaking of skilled trades, some rocking history of the International Typographer's Union (ITU) is also included in the show. The ITU was one of the first unions to admit women (1869), to argue against sex discrimination in hiring, and, in 1886, to fight for equal pay for equal work.

And what would 20th century San Jose history be without the Rosicrucians? In 1929, the Rosicrucian Press opened up in downtown San Jose at 161 W. Julian. A glorious 1931 company photo of all the employees features prominently in the show. One has to wonder if Rosicrucian membership was required of all employees. Was there a secret mystical history of the printing industry in San Jose? Betcha there was. I am never going to look at my printer the same way again.

Slugs, Dingbats, & Tramp Printers! Printing in Santa Clara Valley

Saturday, April 18 at 11am

Leonard & David McKay Gallery at the Pasetta House, History Park