I’ve begun a new area of collection—because I don’t have enough ragged edges in my collection as it is, maybe? It’s one of the things about larger-scale collecting I guess. If you collect red glass roses between 1 and 2 inches across, that’s a really narrow thing, a nearly hermetic collection practice. But if you do something like I do, and can most easily say, “I collect fraternal ‘stuff,'” then the directions available are not easily exhausted. I could (and do) include architectural embellishments, or tie-tacks (which I generally don’t, actually). Ritual clothing, photographs, folk art, symbolic implements. Whatever.
The breadth of it all allows me to weave in other interests, and collect the fraternal versions of those things. Now, I have always found printers’ plates and letterpress blocks to be very interesting. I bought a few letterpress bits when I was a kid, just some elaborate letters, as I recall. But I thought they were neat, and they really are. Working in museums & galleries, I had the opportunity to get up close and personal with printmakers and their tools. And secretly, I very often found the plates themselves to be as interesting or even more so than the very hard-won printed impressions. I think the heft and physicality of the etched or scored metal is what I’m responding to. It’s very aesthetic to me.
So I have begun to collect plates and blocks. I received my first larger lot today, and I had a lot of fun unpacking, looking, and then nicely storing the blocks. These are the illustration blocks used to print a 1925 floorwork manual for the installation of officers of “various branches of Independent Order of Odd Fellows.” There are 28 of them—one is missing, the book has 29 illustrations— and they are high-relief, probably zinc, letterpress blocks. They arrived in a box, wrapped in groups of 4. It looked like a heroin shipment when I first dug in.
The lot came packed in with some decently heavy sheet foam. It reminded me of ethafoam, but I don’t think it is. Considering that these are made of metal and wood, I decided I was much more concerned with damage to the surfaces, rather than outgassing issues. Chopped that stuff up into nice little playing cards and put it all together into a nice little concoction, all stored in another piece from the collection, an old Woodmen of the World trunk!
I photographed a few of the blocks, and one I’ve inverted the image on, so that you can get a feel of how the image looks when printed. Except it wouldn’t have all of that noise, it would be just the simple lines, of course. (Maybe that difference somewhat explains my aesthetic interest!) For those with less exposure to how printmaking works, the block would be inked and then probably wiped a bit to take off any excess. The high points—here the brown lines— would have ink of them, and they stand about 2mm above the metal surface behind. Then in a contraption somewhat reminiscent of a waffle press, the secured blocks are lowered down and pressed with rather great force against a piece of paper, imbedding the ink into the fibers of that surface. (Yes, it is pretty much like the potato stamps you made back in elementary school!)
Now, I’ve participated in a few officer installations in my day, and some of these instructions are frankly insane, in my opinion. But if they were to be executed with precision, they would truly be a sight to behold! It occurs to me that the very close relationship that exists between the IOOF Lodge and its higher, uniformed degrees, might have both informed and also made more possible these elaborate maneuvers. Me and my guys: ask us to stand in a straight line and just step forward one at a time, and…well…