Inside the cigar box: A peek into a small, Canadian printing press

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Foundry type artifacts, surrounded by other artifacts, await packing and transfer to the Ingenium Centre (artifact nos: 1988.0617, 1988.0618, 1988.0627 and 1988.0626).

Sometimes artifacts in the Ingenium collection give us a brief look into a sliver of Canada’s past. As an assistant curator, I recently experienced this firsthand — when I caught a glimpse of what life might have been like for a small printing operation.

In the spring of 2021, the conservation team was busy packing up artifacts as part of an ongoing move from old storage facilities to the new Ingenium Centre in Ottawa. In the midst of packing, they found some foundry type; these pieces of metal type were hand set in order to print material such as newspapers or posters.

Two artifacts housed in a wooden box. They are made up of foundry type that are organized alphabetically right to left. The first artifact is labeled with a white tag with black writing that says “880617.” It is a 16-point display typeface with serifs on the characters. The second artifact is labeled with a white tag with black writing that says “880618.” It is a 16-point condensed typeface with serifs.

A 16-point display typeface (artifact no: 1988.0617) and a 16 point condensed typeface (artifact no: 1988.0618), housed in a cigar box.

These artifacts are part of a larger group of print artifacts, all from the same donor, that were used in “one-man job shop” in the 1920s. The donor’s father and grandfather represent two generations of printers who ran the shop out of their basement in Lindsay, Ontario. There are 56 artifacts in this collection, including a Prouty press; more details are available in our online collection. In a collection of so many compelling artifacts, what made these pieces unique was the way that they were stored in the print shop before they arrived at Ingenium.

The majority of the foundry type in the collection from Lindsay is housed in three cabinets typically used by printers. This style of cabinet contains type cases — which are drawers built specifically to organize type. The three cabinets are fairly tall, stand on the floor, and contain between 13 and 20 drawers, or type cases. The foundry type found by the conservation team, however, was originally stored in another cabinet (Artifact no: 1988.0588). This small cabinet, referred to as a “Spool Thread Case,” is about 25 cm tall and contains only three drawers. According to its artifact file, the top drawer was lined with a copy of The Globe from December 22, 1916. There were originally five foundry type artifacts stored in the cabinet; four of those artifacts were organized in two Colorado Claro Perfecto cigar boxes. 

A wooden cabinet with three drawers sits on a grey shelf. There is dark paint peeling on the front, and each drawer has two circular, white drawer pulls. One drawer pull is not visible as it is covered by a white tag that reads “880588” in black.

This cabinet, referred to as a “thread spool case,” once held foundry type in a one-man job shop in Lindsay, Ontario in the early twentieth century (artifact no: 1988.0588).

When the team came across the type while packing up artifacts to be moved, they not only set aside the type for me to look at, but also brought me over to the cabinet. Compared to the regular type cabinet, it is indeed small! As you can see, some of the paint has peeled from the cabinet, however, pairs of beautiful porcelain knobs still adorn the front of each drawer. The type is no longer stored in the cabinet, but is still in the original cigar boxes. The type artifacts stored in the cigar boxes are: a 16-point display typeface (artifact no: 1988.0617), a 16-point condensed typeface (artifact no: 1988.0618), a 24-point Black script from Connor’s Sons Type Founders, New York (artifact no: 1988.0626), and an 18-point ornate gothic typeface (artifact no: 1988.0627).

Two artifacts are housed in a wooden box. They are made up of foundry type that are organized alphabetically right to left. The first artifact is labeled with a white tag with black writing that says “880627.” The artifact is an 18-point ornate gothic typeface with serifs on the characters. The second artifact is labeled with a white tag with black writing that says “880626.” It is a 24-point Black script with very ornate characters.

An 18-point ornate gothic typeface (artifact no: 1988.0627) and a 24-point Black script (artifact no: 1988.0626), housed in a cigar box.

This cabinet — and its original contents — bring the story of this small printer to life. They show us what the day-to-day life of the people running this shop out of their basement might have been like. The presence of everyday objects like The Globe, used to line a drawer, and Perfecto cigar cases, to hold the type, bring so much character to this group of artifacts. The original owner’s very use of a sewing cabinet to store foundry type stands out against the other groups of artifacts I have been looking at. 

Happily, the foundry type artifacts are now packed up and ready to make their way to a new home in the Ingenium Centre, where they’ll be well preserved as a little slice of Canada’s history.

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Sarah Jaworski

Sarah Jaworski is an assistant curator at Ingenium. They have a BFA in Studio Arts with a Minor in Biology, and an MSc in Forensic Art and Facial Identification. They are also a freelance forensic artist.