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Letterpress Zion: Platen Press Museum

entrance to the Platen Press Museum

I’ve been on the road for almost a week now and I have seen and learned more than I imagined and just as I expected. Following ones gut always leads to the right places and if you are just open enough, you get the gift of wide open spaces both inside and out.

so many platen presses packed together

A fraction of the platens at the museum.

I arrived at the Platen Press Museum in Zion, Illinois, at 12:30pm on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Paul Aken’s collection is truly a wonder to behold and difficult to see, let alone photograph or capture in words. Difficult to see in the sense that there is so much to see, it’s actually challenging to focus your eyes and differentiate between one press and another in the mass of presses there. Small to medium to huge with a special love for all small platens. If it’s letterpress related, Paul’s got at least two of any given item. It’s a huge mass of equipment that’s been lovingly collected and halfway sorted, or maybe all the way sorted – visually you can see evidence of inventory work that I’m sure has been the beast of burden of many an excited intern or visiting printer.

wall of type cabinets stacked three high

Type cabinets stacked three high, one wall of many.

Regardless of what’s been obviously documented, Paul is a wizard behind the curtain. Short, sudden, warm-hearted and a little gruff, he introduced himself as “blind and deaf and dumb, which is okay because the Lord takes care of all three of those, so I’m covered.” Of course, he’s anything but. Especially the last one. He speaks loudly with a few soft interjections of “oh I love this one,” stroking a particularly ornate 19th century metal ornament. He can locate certain typefaces by feel alone, climbing ladders to reach banks of cabinets stacked three high, pulling drawers above his head and just feeling the face of the type to identify. We spent five hours trundling through acres of equipment and landed in his little office piled high with books on printing and type. Categories of categories and so many original documents and again, often two or three copies of each.

Paul Aken in his office smiling big

Paul Aken in his office.

I asked Paul about when he discovered printing. “I was 16,” he said, now 73, “and they sent us off to technical school for nine weeks of woodworking, nine weeks of printing, nine weeks of this and that, and I just liked the printing. Always liked the printing.” He’s not one for fancy design, he’s old school as it comes and wants type to clearly communicate whatever the message at hand.

With regards to the collection, “this is my dream. I come down here every day and I play and when I get tired I go home and take a nap.”

Make the trip to Zion. And then you’ll definitely need a nap.

little wonder vintage label

 metal ornaments at the Platen Press Museum

California job case bronze belt buckle

pile of shiny lead pigs for casting type