A side room at the Buxton National Historic Site contains chains, whips, and a replica of the bowels of a slave ship at the end of a dark space that evokes the Door of No Return. Amidst these objects that remind us of the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade, it is easy to miss the 19th-century book press that sits on a table underneath the room’s projector screen. This small, cast iron press belonged to Mary Ann Shadd, the editor and publisher of the abolitionist newspaper, The Provincial Freeman, which she printed in Chatham between 1854 and 1860. As a device used to bind books, the press is a site of memory that calls to mind the centrality of the printed word to the Phantoms of the Past project. Finding Shadd’s press in such close proximity to some of the most visceral artefacts of the middle passage and enslavement reminded me of the close connection between the abolitionist movement and print culture across the Atlantic world.
While the large letterpress, cases of type, wooden forms, composing sticks and other tools of Shadd’s print shop did not survive when the office of the Provincial Freeman was torn down, the small book press remained in Shadd’s home, and was given to the Buxton museum by family members when Shadd’s papers were donated to the Western Archives. The absence of the letterpress upon which Shadd printed one of the most important abolitionist newspapers in Canada only makes the survival of her book press more powerful, and the narrative surrounding Shadd’s place in print culture more complex. While Mary Ann Shadd’s book press is a site of memory that recalls the importance of abolitionist print culture on both sides of the transatlantic project, the book press as an object has acquired new narratives and associations that point to the larger Phantoms of the Past consideration of which stories are remembered and which are forgotten. At the Buxton museum, the press is presented as Mary Ann Shadd’s personal printing press, even though it is not a printing press. Moreover, a small printing press and cases of serif type are positioned on display beside Shadd’s book press, but this printing press was donated by a funeral home in Blenheim, and was not associated with Mary Ann Shadd and the history of the Provincial Freeman until it arrived at the museum. This press, too, has been identified as “Mary Ann Shadd’s printing press,” even though the museum director, a Mary Ann Shadd descendent, is clear in telling visitors that this small press came from a funeral home, and is in the museum in the hope that it will be repaired and used in printing demonstrations for visiting school children. Nonetheless, in a 2015 newspaper story in the Chatham Voice, the actor Ben Vereen was interviewed on a tour of Buxton. The headline reads: “Black History being Lost, Vereen says.” In the featured photo, he is shown looking at the funeral home letterpress, with a caption that says, “Ben Vereen examines the printing press of Mary Ann Shadd Cary, the first black woman newspaper publisher in North America and the first female publisher in Canada.” In the caption, Shadd Cary is misidentified as the first woman publisher in Canada, and the press in the picture did not belong to her, nor is it large enough to have ever printed a newspaper. Barely visible in the photo’s background is Shadd’s small book press/copy press.
Although Shadd was an editor best know for producing a newspaper, the book press is associated not with printing, but with binding—an often-overlooked aspect of book production. The book press consists of two iron plates—one fixed, and one which moves up and down with a screw mechanism turned by a small hand-operated wheel on the top of the press. In the book binding process, it is used to hold pages in place, pressed between boards, as the bookbinder makes notches in the pages, stitches them together, and applies glue and binding material to create the book’s spine. This device was also commonly used as a copy press, in which letters or other single-sheet documents could be reproduced. The process worked by taking a “phantom image” from the ink of the original document. The document to be copied, typically a manuscript letter, was placed between two protective sheets of oiled paper. The ink on the original document was dampened lightly, covered with a piece of thin onionskin paper that would receive the copied image, and then pressed between the iron plates using the screw mechanism to create the pressure. Although it is unclear if Shadd used this small press for binding books or for reproducing documents, both potential uses carry rich symbolic meanings for the Phantoms project. As a tool for assembling loose and separate pages into the form of a codex, the press provides a metaphor for my project site, which has sought to gather the pages of scattered abolitionist texts, stitch connections among them, and in a sense bind them together in digital space. As a tool for creating facsimiles of original documents, the copy press allows me to reflect on one of the challenges at the heart of my project: the question of translating printed artefacts into digital environments while still being true to the original’s material features and important bibliographic codes. Although Shadd’s print shop remains a phantom in the landscape of Chatham, her small book press reminds us of the importance of abolitionist print culture – not the ideas alone that circulated in the Atlantic World, but the processes of inscription, copying, printing, editing, and binding that produced them, and the material forms that carried them.