Letterpress Card

A bike-themed card by the company Letterpress on Etsy.com.

Ever since we first got together my husband and I have talked about how to respond to one of our key shared interests — peak oil.

For us this means, first of all, a conservation-minded approach to life — using less energy, wasting less, and relying on reusable materials such as hankies and eco-cups, carrying our own grocery bags, and growing much of our own food and cooking it ourselves.

But after we began to practice aggressive conservation approaches we also wondered what kinds of work we might do were there to be a significant energy crisis event? Say, one that could lead to brownouts, blackouts and perhaps even an ongoing loss of electrical service.

For some people, in today’s world of iPhones and smart appliances, this might sound like crazy talk. But for us, it seems prudent to plan for a much lower-tech world once the fossil fuels run low and all sorts of complicated interrelated industrial systems from finance to communications start to stumble and even fall down.

So, planning for a future that could be pretty low tech — beyond the home based economy of growing and preserving food or bartering with our labor — we wondered what we could do that we could either sell, or that would extend our bartering more robustly?

Pressing on

As communicators, writers, and designers the answer was simple — we wanted our own printing press.

We mulled over and talked about owning a small manual press — or perhaps several sized presses — on which we could do business cards, postcards, cards, posters, and even pamphlets, newsletters, or a small local newspaper. It’s a technology that’s been around for centuries, so we knew it could be around for centuries more.

It may seem radical in the unquestioned era of digital everything to want to use such old school equipment, but we know it’s not radical at all. Rather, it’s sensible and even conservative (in the old sense of the word) to have a back up plan suitable to a possible future that novelist James Howard Kunstler has imagined as a “world made by hand.”

The precarious state of energy

Only when people take energy for granted do they operate as if today’s world of comforts and consumer abundance rests on a set of unassailable certainties, utterly invulnerable to the myriad complex factors inherent in modern energy access and energy use — from oil, coal, and gas extraction, refinement, and transport, to the infrastructure, delivery reliability, price, and worldwide demand competition for those resources.

And these are big, big concerns. They undergird everything in our existing economy, so it’s worth not banking our entire life on their uninterrupted flow.

But you don’t have to be a hunkered-down survivalist to fashion a back-up plan worth investing in. You don’t have to live in fear — or spread fear — about what might happen if when that energy becomes scarce and more costly. You just have to thoughtfully consider and then buy into the following three things:

  1. History hasn’t always been linear, progressive, and teleological (headed ever onward and upward to a more advanced place).
  2. Technology does not operate independent of energy.
  3. Pleasurable hobbies and interests can double as lifestyle back-up plans.


Playful planning

With our belief in the above points then, we wanted to get a press to enjoy it as a hobby and also to add handmade works as niche offerings in our existing communications business.

At the same time the press could act as a back up plan for us were we forced to rely on it — rather than the Web — as our only form of outside work.

That said, when my hubby asked me what I wanted for my birthday this past week I couldn’t help but say that the main thing on my mind was finally getting our own letterpress.

We perused online classifieds for what was out there. Unfortunately these were mostly far away and too heavy to affordably ship. But we figured that one might come to us if we kept our eyes out.

Finally flying

And lo and behold! After deciding to go antiquing on my birthday we happened on a sinfully well-priced 6 x 10 Chandler & Price Pilot Press and snagged it in an instant.

At last we have a restored, working press at our disposal. We can hardly believe it!

Now, we have only to learn to use it, acquire type and blocks, and get to work making a bunch of stuff — cards for family members, business cards for ourselves, tags for my design products, and bottle labels for his home brews — as we master the art of manual print.

By getting together with others and learning from their knowledge (the Virginia Arts of the Book Center is in nearby Charlottesville, Va.) we ought to be able to take the hobby into some business applications before too long. That will help us feel we have an old-world skill in our back pocket and at the ready should we ever need it.

In the meantime, there’s nothing wrong with a little old fashioned fun!