Philadelphia 1776–2013: A Day in Women’s History Month

Date of visit: March 2, 2013arabesque2

I. Benjamin Franklin Court
Gentlewomen of the Press
317 Chestnut Street

II. Monotype Factory Building
Women typecasters during war-time
24th and Locust Street

III. Philadelphia Museum of Art/Pearlman Building
Double Portrait: Paula Scher and Seymour Chwast, Graphic Designers

What do we know about the history of women in the graphic arts? According to all of the major academic texts on the subject virtually no women worked in the field before the mid-twentieth century. However, despite the impression left by those authors there have been women printers, typesetters, type casters, punch cutters, type drafters and type designers since the 16th century. Women have worked alongside their fathers, husbands and brothers as valuable partners, regularly taking over while men traveled, left to fight in wars, were incarcerated or inebriated. If the absent man was able to return to his press the women were frequently demoted or dismissed.

Just as their own families have marginalized the roles of these women so have modern design historians. In 1920, the eminent type historian Daniel Berkeley Updike, (himself a grandson and great-grandson of the colonial Goddard women printers) wrote of the female worker matter-of-factly and dismissively, “women in the type foundry, like child labor, is nothing new.” In essence, women were there but of they were of no consequence. Fortunately things are changing and women from the present, as well as the past, are getting their due recognition.

11:00 AM
Benjamin Franklin Court
Colonial Ladies of Letterpress

pressPart of the Independence National Historical Park includes a colonial print shop on the former site of Benjamin Franklin’s home. The press now houses a few type cases, a bindery and a large antique printing press used for live demonstrations. On each Saturday of March a short lecture, Gentlewomen of the Press (Women Printers of the 18th Century), highlights some of the women in colonial print shops. My son discovered the free event and he and his girlfriend gamely accompanied me to the presentation.

Finding the press took a bit of persistence. The Franklin Court complex is located inside of a city block with minimal signage to announce its whereabouts. The entrance begins next to the colonial post office and snakes past the construction site that currently covers most of the Franklin museum complex (slated for completion by Fall 2103).

We entered just in time to hear the ranger’s enthusiastic explanation as to why colonial Philadelphia had a high rate of female literacy. The colonial Quakers encouraged women to read for participation in Bible study, a necessity in a religion that required self-learning rather than instruction by church officials. Literacy was certainly an advantage for women in the press shop (although we’ve read of one illiterate woman printer, Dinah Nuthead, who became the tenth woman licensed to print in the colonies in 1696.)

Deborah Read Franklin, Title page printed by Ann Smith Franklin, Mary Katherine Goddard
Deborah Read Franklin, Title page by Ann Smith Franklin, (r) Mary Katherine Goddard

Our presenter surveyed numerous Franklin women and female associates who were active in the printing field, most of whom fit the pattern of marginalization we noted earlier. Benjamin’s wife, Deborah Read (1708-1774), was the manager of the family press during Franklin’s long absences overseas— holding down the fort and helping to expand the business throughout the colonies. Franklin only credited his wife for her financial prowess, “Frugality is…a virtue I could never acquire in myself, but I was lucky enough to find it in a wife, who thereby became a fortune to me.”

It was the female in-laws of Franklin that actually “got inky” at the press. Ann (Smith) Franklin (1696 -1763) the sister-in-law of Benjamin and widow of his brother, became the first woman printer in Newport, Rhode Island at age 39 when she inherited her husband’s press in 1735. She ran the press while raising five children alone, later joined by son James when he completed his apprenticeship with Uncle Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia in 1748. When James died Anne (then age 65) fed the family by continuing the print shop assisted by her son-in-law and her two daughters, who were “correct and quick compositors.”

Franklin was also in a business partnership with Elizabeth Timothy (?–1757), a widow in South Carolina, whose newspaper printing skills were praised by Franklin over those of her late husband. Mrs. Timothy, as a woman, could not be legally recognized in her position and therefore placed the name of her 13-year-old son, Peter, on the paper’s masthead as the official publisher. Using a male child’s name was a common tactic for printing widows and one of the reasons that many women printers names are unrecorded.
dec independenceThe most historically notable woman of the group was Mary Katherine Goddard (1738-1816), daughter of another female printer, Sarah Updike Goddard, and ancestor of the aforementioned Daniel Berkeley Updike. Mary Katherine took over her brother William’s newspaper during his frequent incarcerations for “public outbursts and rabble-rousing articles in the paper” and while he fought in the Revolutionary War. In 1777, Congress authorized her to print the first official copy of the Declaration of Independence to include the names of the original signers, but she made her livelihood and reputation at the newspaper. One of her contemporaries, newspaper publisher Isaiah Thomas, considered her,“ an expert and correct compositor, doing good printing besides fine work with copperplates.” Nevertheless, not all was peaceful after the Revolution as brother William returned to the press and summarily dismissed Mary Katherine. She lost her printing business to her brother despite a slew of influential names attached to her letters of petition to the government and five attempted lawsuits. She persevered by selling books, stationery and dry goods.

Prepping the leather tampons with ink, and inking the type.
Prepping the leather tampons for ink tack (r) Inking the type on press
Pulling the lever (r) Teaching the next generation
Pulling the press lever, (r) Teaching the next generation

We saw the press in operation by two different women park guards who competently made their way through the printing as they explained the process. Several woman-centric printed items were on sale. Satisfied in mind but not in stomach, we lunched a few doors away at Fork restaurant.

2:00 PM
The Monotype Factory
Women in War Time Prove “We can do it!”


The next stop was 24th and Locust Street, location of the former Monotype Factory. This time Philadelphia-based graphic designer and Hofstra Design professor, Bez Ocko, accompanied us. Although the name Monotype is now associated with digital fonts the term was first used to describe a metal type-casting machine sold in the United States and Great Britain. In 1887 Tolbert Lanston designed the Monotype prototype which required two pieces of equipment, a keyboard and a metal typecaster. The process began with an operator typing the text using a keyboard of 276 keys, the amount required to cover all of a font variants such as italic, bold, etc.  Each key strike triggered a number of holes punched along the length of a 4-inch wide paper ribbon. The typecasting machine used the perforated ribbon to dictate the specific order in which individual metal letters were cast from a brass a matrix. (We will include much more about the Monotype in our next posting in late March.)monotype_stoneMonotypebuildingBy 1905 the American Lanston Monotype Company moved its manufacturing to Philadelphia, first on Callowhill Street and later to 24th and Locust. The new five-story brick structure housed 200,000 square-feet of matrix making, letter drafting, tooling, assembling, milling, casting, inspection, engineering and training facilities.

Today the only remainders of the Philadelphia Monotype factory are the stone letters over the door and past volumes of the house organ, Monotype: A Journal of Composing Room Efficiency. In those publications one can read how women at Monotype and across the country, normally confined to keyboard input, filled in for men during wartime. The articles praise the women for their important contribution in war time but make it clear that it is only a temporary situation.women of monotype

From an 1918 edition, “The present shortage of male Monotype operators and runners has opened a new field for the girls and they are making good at it.” From Omaha, Nebraska came the story of how a woman became a Monotype type caster during the man shortage of World War I. “As the weeks rolled by and no suitable candidate for the job appeared it began to look as if our foreman would be compelled to operate the casters himself. About this time a copy of Monotype containing the picture of a young lady operator in New York fell into the hands of a Miss Wells who was working in the bindery. She applied and after considering the matter for some time we decided to give her a chance to show what she could do. She began by watching how the work was done. This she did for several days after which she was taught to take off the galleys, keep the metal pots full, and the temperature of the metal right, to put on the spools of copy and the other incidentals of caster running. She has not attempted to change the molds but hopes to be able to do so in the future. As matters now stand Miss Wells is learning as rapidly as the average young man and is more dependable.”…“In this connection it might be well to consider that all trades are breaking down traditions and find that woman can perform many operations for which they were supposed to be in some way unfitted.Ladies and Monotype casters

Despite the women’s suitability for their work the male run trade unions squashed any future prospects. “At the last meeting of the American Publishers Association there rose a request to the International Typographic Union to train women operators for the newspaper, but the proposition did not meet the approval of that body, who considered the newspaper end of the business as too strenuous for the women.” In this case it was the union, not family members or the actual workshop managers that kept women out of the foundry.

4:00 PM The Philadelphia Museum of Art/Pearlman Building
Double Portrait: Paula Scher and Seymour Chwast, Graphic Designers
December 2, 2012 – April 14, 2013

Our last stop of the day was a joint showing of the work of graphic designer Paula Scher (b. 1948) and her illustrator husband Seymour Chwast (b. 1931). The exhibition was the perfect demonstration, not only of Ms. Scher’s talent, but also of how far women have come in terms of professional and marital equality. The couple was given equal billing and space in the large gallery. Both spouses showed high quality work, but at a distance Sher’s exudes a more powerful energy, a deliberate approach she cultivated in response to the environment where her work is often seen, New York City.

Wall of work by Paula Scher
Wall of work by Paula Scher

Scher, educated at Tyler School of Art just outside Philadelphia, began her career designing album covers for CBS and Atlantic Records. In 1984, she co-founded Koppel & Scher with fellow Tyler graduate Terry Koppel and it was during that partnership that she designed her intensely controversial Swatch poster. The poster was a near perfect replication of the travel poster designed by Herbert Matter in 1934. Although she obtained the rights from the Matter estate, and it appears that she was clearly referring to Swiss culture, Matter and the dying era of Swiss design, the subsequent critical uproar included accusations of plagiarism or a least a lack of professional integrity. Perhaps part of the controversy was that Scher was a woman appropriating the work of a male icon, (recently deceased) and the perceived lack of reverence was just too provocative.scher_swatch
The exhibition display was big and bright. The space, divided equally in half, featured walls filled to the rafters with their work plus separate but equal media presentations. The east wall, displaying a single A from Scher’s logo for the Type Director’s Club is directly countered by the west wall sporting the organic A Chwast drew for Artone India Ink. Each spouse was given their proper due, a sweet end to a day tinged with female inequality and anonymity.

Professor Ocko provides scale reference for Scher's A (r) Chwast's A
Professor Ocko provides scale reference for Scher’s A (r) Chwast’s A

One can never know if her predecessors had the  luxury (or burden) of reflecting on their professional relationships but perhaps they might have had some of the same thoughts as Scher, “If I had not been with him, would I have lived my life exactly this way, or am I with him because I always wanted to do it this way? I don’t know. I ask myself this question all the time.’’ * To see more of her work and hear Ms. Scher in her own words you can view her interview, Paula Scher : The Geography of Design by Nicholas Heller

Additional Sources

Barlow, Marjorie Dana. Notes on Women Printers in Colonial America and The Untied States, 1639-1975, The Hroswitha Club, University Press of Virginia, 1976.

Photo Mary Katherine Goddard:  Courtesy of Enoch Pratt Free Library

Monotype Doing Her Bit, While Her Soldier is Serving His Country. Monotype A Journal of Composing Room Efficiency, Published by the Lanston Monotype Company of Philadelphia.
•Volume 5, No 6, March April 1918, p 133.
• Volume 6, No 1, May June 1918.

Tiger, Caroline.  Together – never; except in an exhibit of their graphic designs at the Art Museum.  The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 1, 2012.

Paula Scher: The Geography of Design (Part 2) Nicholas Heller, August 2009. Youtube.

Written by Nancy Stock-Allen

3 thoughts on “Philadelphia 1776–2013: A Day in Women’s History Month

  1. Good stuff, really enjoyable read! I am a born and raised Philadelphian and I never heard of Gentlewomen of the Press although I have been to Franklin Court. And who knew there was a Monotype Factory Building
    in Center City? Thanks for all of the great information. Looking forward to your next post.

  2. Hooray for women. We create life and respond creatively to all that surrounds us. We have always been far busier engaging in the experience of life than we were in seeking the credit for our accomplishments. So thank you for the research and the documentation of women printers.

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