Spreading the Knowledge of Letterpress one card at a time

Written by Tier Morrow

Sitting around the living room after Christmas dinner, daughter, son, and husband each played with words back and forth to create the perfect title.

But nothing seemed to fit.

“Mom what’s something that is important to you when you think about letterpress and the shop?” her son finally asked.

“The presence of my dad,” she replied.

And so Little Cricket Letterpress was born out of fond memories with her father as a young girl standing on a stool to file away tiny blocks of type; she would forever be his “Cricket.”

Martha Beeson is a second-generation printer who took on her father’s shop in 1998 where she now creates cards and wedding invitations while also hosting workshops in Winona Lake, Indiana.

She is carrying out a 600-year-old craft among 4,690 other printers in Indiana, currently one of the most populated states for letterpress, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Letterpress makes her happy and you can see it when she works,” said Steve Beeson, Martha’s husband. “She is always very focused on the project she has at hand trying to find the best solutions to her problems. It is also a big way she expresses her creativity.”

Martha said she remembers the strong smell of the oil-based ink that would linger in the basement as she watched her father teach her brother, whom he thought would continue the business, to print. 

When letterpress finally went out of fashion completely, her father was unable to continue selling pieces but still tinkered in the art when he could.

“My father got cancer towards the end of his life, and when he knew he was going to pass on, he asked me if I wanted the shop,” Beeson said. “Of course I said yes. We moved everything to my house, and he took about three weeks training me on everything.”

After accepting the ancient machines, Beeson learned that her husband’s grandparents, who once lived in her home now, owned a letterpress shop, and at one point there were other presses in the basement. Among her equipment, she still has one of the small presses that her husband’s grandparents painted completely gold, but which is now restored to working condition.

“I think it is kind of symbolic of letterpress. I mean nothing worked. You couldn’t move anything because it was painted solid for years as a show piece. People thought that letterpress had really just become an ancient art from history,” said Beeson. “Now we use it and take it to different shows and places where people can use it and experience letterpress.”

For a few years, Beeson did not spend much time printing because she had a full-time job as an art teacher. But four years ago, she retired from teaching, and now spends about 15 hours a week among the old type.

The more and more people started reaching out to Beeson for wedding invitations and other designs, the more she ran into the problem of finding wooden images, also known as cuts, that would be appropriate for the situation.

Beeson’s solution was teaching herself the 60-year-old craft of hand-carving by watching YouTube videos.  As engravers once did in 1970, Beeson uses specific engraving tools that allow her to cut on the engrain of the wood instead of the cross-grain which makes her carvings smoother.

Today, Beeson now has more than 40 cuts that she has designed and hand carved using the old technique, and most of her favorites are among them.

Aside from the thrill of creating new pieces, stepping up to the press and printing something new still amazes Beeson no matter what she is printing.

“I will never get over the beauty of each inked masterpiece I create. Sometimes I’ll stand at the press and gasp in amazement each time I take a card off and replace it with another,” Beeson said.

Elisha Ramey, a friend of Beeson’s who works on projects in her shop, said that she was amazed by what she could do the first time Beeson taught her to do letterpress.

“Martha’s small shop is so simple. It is an amazing place to come and relax and work, but she is also a great teacher. I have learned everything I know from her,” Ramey said. “I love the limitations of using what we have here in the shop. It’s glorious. It pushes the bounds of your creativity.”

Beeson’s shop lies within a closely knit group of other small businesses enclosed within restored historical buildings along the waterfront of Winona Lake, where the famous baseball outfielder and evangelist Billy Sunday once resided. Together these outlets create a niche of artistry where more people like Ramey can come and learn to print and continue printing.

For Beeson, letterpress encompasses her childhood and her love of art, which she gets to share with those around her.

“Letterpress is a vintage method of printing that expresses images and ideas in the most beautiful way possible,” said Beeson. “It is such as a unique trade, and there is so much beauty in the old craft that I try to make it as simple as possible, but sometimes it is easier to show someone a pressed card, than it is to tell them.”

This piece was written by a Ball State University student and member of the Book Arts Collaborative in Muncie, Indiana. The Book Arts Collaborative is dedicated to preserving and promoting the apprentice-taught skills of letterpress printing and book binding through community interaction. It’s not just what we make that matters, but how we learn from one another to make it happen.

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