For a city as rich in history as Bethlehem is, you would think that there would be multiple museums across town. Consider this a shameless plug, but my side summer job working as an intern at the National Museum of Industrial History, has made me realize that the NMIH should be on the top of a Bethlehem tourist’s “places to visit” list. Opened in 2016, the museum not only contains information about the industrial revolution across the country throughout the 1880s, but it also excels at connecting the revolution’s significance in the growth of Bethlehem Steel. I never saw the company as such an important component to the city’s development until my experiences at NMIH.
The National Museum of Industrial History not only highlights industrial inventions, like the Corliss steam engine, but it also aims to recognize even the simplest of machines that have contributed to society through its seasonal exhibits.
Megan Pildis, the development director of NMIH, says that the museum is trying to shine a spotlight on and encourage a personal connection with industrial history.
“It’s so common in our everyday lives that people don’t think about where something came from, how did it get here, and how to invent something in order to have something that can epically transform our lives,” Pildis said. “That’s the main message we promote with every exhibit– the inventors, the workers, the machines, the natural resources behind all of these everyday things that we take for granted.”
Since May 2018, the NMIH has hosted an exhibit entitled “Hot Off the Presses: Printing and Papermaking” to educate the Lehigh Valley about the earliest forms of printing and papermaking. The museum has also hosted monthly programming of all kinds of expert sessions and programming: paper making classes, film screenings (such as Linotype: the Film twice a month), and demonstrations of inventions, like our 1933 Fourdrinier endless web paper machine, once a month. This machine, in particular, was an old fan favorite. The Franklin Institute featured the paper and print exhibit for almost a full century.
Twice a week, NMIH also showcases lifelong printers who own and work in shops that specialize in these artifacts, such as the Conestoga Press in Ephrata, PA and the Heritage Press Museum in Lancaster PA. Below, check out a clip of mentor Alan Runfeldt of the Excelsior Press Museum Print Shop in Frenchtown, NJ demonstrating how to make printed postcards:
Visitors have the opportunity to observe, ask as many questions as they please, and to try these printing techniques for themselves.
Pildis shared the origin story behind Hot Off the Presses, stating, “We have this paper making machine model on long term loan from the Franklin Institute, and there was a lot of interest in restoring it for the public. We were getting inquiries pretty frequently, and so that’s what sort of kicked off the idea.”
“The coolest story is that a paper industry trade publication had put a blurb about the restoration project, and a bunch of employees from a local company called Minerals Technologies had copies of the article out in their cafeteria,” Pildis says. “One of their executives just happened to see it. They later came over and visited the machines. The employees banded together and donated to the project and the company matched their donations. We also received support from local companies like print shops, office machinery services and manufacturers.”
The presses on display in Hot Off the Press are examples of classic hand feed printing presses, such as a large wooden press, a small tabletop press, and an early 20th century platen press.
I also reached out Andria Zaia, the NMIH curator, about how she planned and constructed the layout of the exciting exhibit. She explained to me how Hot Off the Press was designed and researched in house, and that she and her volunteers have a digital layout of the available gallery space, therefore making it easier to carefully measure the artifacts.
“Artifact placement can be tricky,” Zaia admits. “They need to be placed in conjunction with the story we are trying to tell in the exhibit and some of our NMIH artifacts are very heavy and require riggers to help during installation. For example, each of our printing mosaics weighs 4000 lbs. To capture the text we use in the exhibit, we first write a manual, which then is adapted for the museum docents to use. Next, we extract exciting or important information to add to the panels and labels.” The curating department then collaborates using Adobe Illustrator, then sends the files out to a professional print shop to produce the finished product.
Zaia’s team worked on the exhibit a year prior to its unveiling. “Interns, volunteers, and staff members researched the machines and the processes used by combing through written materials and consulting with important experts in the letterpress printing industry. We went on field trips to visit other museums and letterpress studios and asked many, many questions!”
Printing through early presses, like the Common Press, the 1874 Daughaday Press, and the large, early 20th century Chandler and Price Platen exhibit, otherwise known as the “Model T” of printing presses, was a lucrative source for employment. By the late 19th century, small tabletop presses were marketed to young children to help them develop the needed skills for the industry.
During Musikfest from August 3rd-August 12th, members of the public were invited to print their own Musikfest 2018 souvenir poster on our museum plaza with the inventions on display.
This is an example of how the NMIH wants visitors to discover the connection between the old printing industry and the technology we know of today. Visitors can see that there are similarities between a keyboard and the linotype machine, or how digital articles have the same power as a printed newspaper. Hot Off the Presses is proof that the printed world is definitely not a dying art: in fact, not much as changed at all.
Come visit the National Museum of Industrial History today! For more information, visit http://nmih.org/.
*Feature photo credits: EV Dundon*