JP Romney and I were thrilled when HarperCollins brought on a highly-sought letterpress printer, Ross MacDonald, to design the cover of our book Printer’s Error. If you look at the lettering on the front cover, you’ll notice a depth to it that was created through our designer using actual wood and metal type, set by hand. But we didn’t know at the time that the type used by MacDonald had its own bizarre history.
MacDonald is a historian of typography in addition to his work as a printer and professional designer – he produces work for books like Printer’s Error and magazines like Rolling Stone and the New York Times, in addition to TV and movie props, notably Boardwalk Empire and The Hateful Eight. He owns three antique presses and almost 1500 fonts of historical type. For a book about the history of print, of course he was going to use part of his stash of nineteenth-century type. JP and I first thought that was the extent of its coolness (which, frankly, would have been quite enough). But then we learned from MacDonald that the type came from the basement of what was once Lizzie Borden’s home.
In 1892 Lizzie Borden was arrested on suspicion of murdering her father and step-mother with a hatchet. The trial, in which she was acquitted, became one of the biggest stories of the decade—a predecessor of sorts to infamous twentieth-century trials like the Rosenbergs, O.J. Simpson, and Bruno Hauptmann (accused of kidnapping Charles Lindbergh’s baby). Notably in the Lizzie Borden case, a hatchet-head with a broken handle, the suspected murder weapon, was found by the police in the basement of the house. The Borden House is now, no kidding, a B&B.
Closer to industrial areas of the city than most of the homes owned by the city’s elite, before its disturbing fate as a modern B&B (in which apparently the room where Lizzie Borden’s step-mother was found murdered is the most popularly requested) the Borden House partially became a storage unit of sorts for its neighbor. According to MacDonald:
Sometime in the early to mid-20th century, a building was built next to the house. A printing operation was located there for decades…at some point they knocked a hole through a common basement wall and used the Borden House basement for storing old stuff they didn’t use much anymore, including some old wood type. Pity the poor printer’s devil* who had to go into that creepy basement to get some type…
The type that MacDonald used for “ERROR” on our book cover is that wood type salvaged from the Borden basement, an Antique Roman manufactured in 1884, “eight years before Lizzies swung the hatchet,” he says. (For the typography enthusiasts out there, MacDonald tells us the type used for “PRINTER’S” was a late-nineteenth century Grecian XX Condensed, and a Clarendon type dating back to 1846 for our author names. The smallest type in the design, “Rare-Book Specialist,” etc., is an 1899 Engraver’s Roman.)
Wood type became a staple of the nineteenth century, with its exuberant advertising, because it could be manufactured in much bigger sizes than metal type. Today we see this kind of “display” type and we immediately sense the flavor of the nineteenth century.
Pre-order our book Printer’s Error here, which comes out on March 14, 2017.
In the meantime, check out JP’s novel The Monster on the Road is Me.
Visit Ross MacDonald’s website.
Watch a video of MacDonald setting the type for Printer’s Error:
*A printer’s devil is an apprentice or low-ranking employee, usually quite young, who worked at a printer’s shop.
All images and video courtesy Ross MacDonald.