Blog Post

Mad Madge: A Love Story

Nicole Stark | July 1, 2022

Because of Mad Madge (Madge for short), UCSB’s replica nineteenth-century Albion press, I now understand the love between (wo)man and machine.

When I accepted UCSB’s offer of admission in 2017, I had no idea a printing press already had been purchased, and when I found out about it through advertisements for the History of Print course taught by Patricia Fumerton and Harry Reese, I jumped at the chance to see it in action. For me, experiencing the press was something novel, and I still associated those who operated and knew about older printing presses with enthusiastic hobbyists working at places like Colonial Williamsburg. However, it became clear on the first day of the course that my exposure to the press would be not as a casual tourist, but as a printer; we would be learning to use at least one of the presses we would be exposed to, and the final half of the course would involve us having to print a project of our own design. For someone with little experience with machinery, this felt daunting—but as new territory, it was also a bit exhilarating. I knew from the first day that the machine I would choose for my final project had to be Madge. First, she was named after Margaret Cavendish (“Mad Madge”), whose imaginative, female-centered writings made me an early modernist. Second, though Madge is made of metal instead of wood, she operates in essentially the same way that early modern wooden pull presses did.

As we moved toward designing our final project, my team, fellow English grad student Jessica Zisa and undergraduate CCS student Ashleigh Pillay, decided to print a broadside-booklet hybrid featuring printed excerpts from early modern querelle des femmes texts (a series of printed debates in England about the nature, status, and value of women), as well as Christine de Pisan’s medieval defense of women, The Book of the City of Ladies. We quickly learned how laborious our undertaking would be.

Before printing, we first had to set type. While the amount of text I set didn’t look massive on the page, it took many hours given my novice abilities; it’s a strange process to painstakingly set type letter-by-letter, especially when you haven’t yet memorized how a California job case (below) is organized. To set type, I first I had to determine line length for the excerpts I was assigned using pieces called “leading,” and then arrange my type on top of it. I next had to ensure there were sufficient amounts of type to produce our excerpts (which was essentially a guessing game, and one I lost—eventually I turned to using the italic typeface when I ran out of certain letters). Finally, I had to transfer what type I had composed onto a metal tray (called a “galley”) to store it for later—and this was when all hell broke loose. After setting a block of six lines of type on my composing stick for two-and-a-half hours, I dropped it all when I foolishly lifted my block of type onto the galley instead of pushing it. Because all the type was jumbled when it fell, I not only had to stop myself from ugly frustration-crying, but sort what fell across my galley back into the job case and then completely re-compose the type.While frustrating, this kind of mistake was part of learning how this element of printing works—and learned my lesson I did; it’s a mistake I haven’t made since. After many hours and days setting type, printing proofs (where we do a quick printing on a roll press using carbon paper to test that letters won’t move and spelling looks good), and moaning over our very sore backs and shoulders, our group made many adjustments (correcting spelling, tightening lines, etc.) and finally ran a successful proof.

We were finally ready for Madge.

We chose a quality, inexpensive paper (French paper), set text on the bed of the press (which involved orienting each block of text’s direction to correspond to how the sheet of paper would finally be folded), and spent two hours filling the chase with wooden furniture (we learned the hard way to never eyeball the size of furniture needed after getting nowhere for 40 minutes—always measure). After oiling Madge’s moveable parts, we worked the ink out smooth (which took about ten minutes as the room was cold), and used inking balls to deposit, or “kiss,” ink onto the type. We printed copies of the front of the sheet first, which took about two hours, and then set and printed the back, which took another three. While time-consuming, the printing portion itself felt swift after the long hours of preparation. At many points while doing the pre-printing labor, we couldn’t help but comment on how inefficient and time-consuming the typesetting process felt. Was this process overall really better than writing when it was introduced? However, once we began operating the press and making prints, as inexperienced and “short-staffed” as we were, we were able to print 2o copies of each side in less than two hours. As we gained personal insight into the process as a whole, we were able to think more clearly about the divisions of labor and skill in an early modern printing house, and how this process, though laborious, would be streamlined and—in fact—very productive and efficient.

Maybe it was Stockholm Syndrome after the many hours working with/next to Madge in the Maker Lab, but she became the first machine I ever truly learned to know and, to my surprise, care about. It was hard not to—there is an intimacy to learning the ins and outs of a machine, and they have their own temperaments. Things need to be done just so in order for Madge to give you the prints you aim for (e.g. having to do hours of careful composing and preparation before even setting the press; diligent oiling to ensure it rolls and twists smoothly; carefully cleaning up ink from the chase and furniture after every printing; learning just the right amount of ink to deposit so that the weight of Madge’s platen doesn’t smudge the letters, etc.). We even see the continuous relationship and intimacy between human and machine reflected in the way parts of the press were named in the early modern period after human body parts (e.g., the “cheeks,” “head,” “feet,” etc.). Even pieces of type themselves have a “face,” “body,” and even a “beard.”

Five years later, and after many hours at the press, I can finally understand how humans can feel such a connection to the machines they work with, whatever they may be. Like another person, one grows to know a machine. I now teach others how to operate Madge in courses I’ve taught and TA’d for, and see the same response to Madge from many of my students, who often experience and develop their own individual relationships to our beloved press. Coming full circle, this spring I even had the chance to co-instruct with Patricia Fumerton the very printing course I first took in 2017.

Soon, pandemic-willing and if the university lets us keep our Maker Lab that houses Mad Madge going, we’ll be building a wooden common press from the ground up. Doing so will entail pushing our collective knowledge of presses even further into not only how to use a press, but how each individual part, no matter how small, functions to create the whole.

And I’m sure once we’re done, we’ll all love it (almost) as much as Madge.