Hand-crafted words: Retired professor gives Franklin press miniature to Smithsonian
Richard Heitzenrater, a retired professor in the Duke Divinity School, also works with wood, and has an interest in the history of printing and rare books. All of those interests merged in the mid-1980s, when he built a miniature replica of the press that Benjamin Franklin said he used as a printer apprentice in 1725-1726.
He built the working replica while teaching courses in printing history to show students the process of printing. To build the model, he worked from plans published by the Smithsonian Institution. When he saw the Smithsonian book, “I said, why not make an actual press?” he said.
Last week, Heitzenrater donated his miniature press to the Smithsonian Institution, where it will sit in a printing equipment room of the museum. The museum also will use the miniature for workshops and classes to demonstrate how wooden hand presses of the 18th century worked.
That process fascinates modern minds, Heitzenrater said. “It just sort of boggles the mind,” he said of the process. Each page of the paper had to be dampened, the platen rolled out, and the levers adjusted to get the pressure even on the page – all while printing one page at a time, he said. Unlike with modern, computerized printing, the stages of the process are readily apparent. “You can see it stage by stage and see what happens,” Heitzenrater said.
In 1768, Franklin, then an ambassador to England, visited a print shop in London, according to a brief history on the Smithsonian website. Franklin said the press in the shop was the same one he learned on while an apprentice in 1725-1726. John B. Murray, an American working in London, purchased the press in 1842 and had it shipped to the United States, where for 40 years it was exhibited in the Patent Office. The press became an official part of the Smithsonian collection in 1901.
Heitzenrater made the miniature in his workshop in Durham, using wood from 19th century pews from St. Margaret’s Church, Westminster Abbey in London. The miniature, like the original press, uses wooden pegs to join the pieces, and has only two pieces that are attached with nails. Heitzenrater also made the metal parts. The metal screw that provides the pressure for the press was hand-made by a local machinist. When the Smithsonian agreed to accept the donation last spring, he also made a special box for storing and transporting the press using dead pine and walnut wood from the North Carolina mountains.
Among his woodworking creations are book cases, tables, and boxes that he designed and makes from recycled wood from Duke Chapel pews, which are given as gifts to donors.
Because of the Smithsonian’s restrictive policies on donations, Heitzenrater did not expect the museum to be interested. The museum “accepts only items that truly fill a gap in the collections,” according to the Smithsonian website. “Because of this rigorous selection process, the Smithsonian adds to its collections only a tiny percentage of what it is offered.”
He contacted Joan Boudreau, a curator in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. She responded to his email inquiry and asked for pictures, Heitzenrater said. “Within 15 minutes, she responded that they would definitely like to have it,” he said.
Heitzenrater’s interest in printing goes back to his high school years, when he began making silkscreen prints. As a student at Duke, he did silkscreen posters for campus organizations, which are in the library’s collections. When he was a freshman, he worked in the library’s rare books department, where he catalogued collections of rare books. “I spent a lot of time in the rare books room learning about type, learning about paper,” he said. “I got interested in fonts, paper design, all the stuff that went into it.” He became director of special collections for the library at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.
As a minister in the Methodist church, “people started giving me preachers’ collections of old books,” he said. He is donating his collection to Duke.
There is one rare book he would like to find. As an apprentice printer, Franklin stated in his autobiography that he printed an edition of William Wollaston’s “The Religion of Nature Delineated” on the Franklin press.
“What would really be neat … is to get a copy of that book that Franklin said he helped set the type,” Heitzenrater said.