February 22, 2016
by Christa Beranek
“I found the letter S!” exclaimed one of the students on the Plymouth field school this past June.
Although the letter S was the only piece we recognized in the field, we found at least three pieces of printing type during the 2015 excavations on the edge of Burial Hill in Plymouth. The other two pieces, recognized in the lab, are punctuation and possibly a spacer used for adding space between words or at the ends of lines, so are much thinner and lack the give-away of a letter at one end. Their distinctive form with feet and side nicks indicates that they are type.
The 2015 excavations focused on the eastern edge of Burial Hill, at the southern end of School Street. All along School Street, old buildings—schools, stables, and houses—were taken down in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the area was filled to create the open grassy space we see today. The buildings at the southern-most end were taken down first, starting in about 1880. The three pieces of type came from three different excavation units, but all were found in the landscaping fill brought in after the buildings were demolished. This suggests that the type dates to before 1885, when the filling of this area was completed, consistent with the dates of the associated artifacts.
The three pieces that we have are a bold, serif, upper-case S (abt. 36 points), a punctuation mark (abt. 12 points), and a spacer or punctuation mark (abt. 9 pts). The printing end of the last piece is broken off, which makes it impossible to tell if it is a punctuation mark or a spacer. Since lines of type all need to be the same length, spacers came in a number of different thicknesses, depending on how much space was needed to even out the line. Very narrow spaces were hair spaces, followed by fractions of an em (3 to the em, 4 to the em), then en quads, em quads, and multiples such as two-em and so on. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an em was a square whose size was defined by the point size of the font (Stewart 1918: 19). Most type from this period is made of a mixture of lead and antimony, sometimes with tin or copper (Stewart 1918: 7; Updike 1922: 13).
The three pieces of type from the 2015 excavations on Burial Hill in Plymouth.
The features that indicated that the pieces are type (other than the obvious letter S) are the feet (the small points on the short end) and the nicks (the grooves on one of the long sides). Different fonts had different numbers and placement of nicks. When all of the pieces were of the same font, the nicks formed a continuous groove in a line of set type (Stewart 1918: 8-9); pieces of type from other fonts could be recognized by the break in the line of nicks. Our three pieces have different patterns and placement of the nicks.
Since type is such an unusual artifact, and the pieces we found were distributed across a several meter area, one of our hypotheses is that we might be able to identify potential sources of the fill used to level this area by finding the locations of print shops in ca. 1880 Plymouth. The 1887 Plymouth Directory (Hogan 1887), the first published for Plymouth, lists two printers: Avery and Doten, publisher of the Old Colony Memorial newspaper with an office on Court Street near the corner of North St, and D. W. Andrews, publisher of the Plymouth Free Press with an office on Middle Street.
Also of interest:
Examples of 17th-century printing type were found during recent excavations in Harvard Yard. More information about those pieces can be found on the web page of the Digging Veritas Exhibit and as part of a follow-up study trying to match the type to books known to be printed on the press at Harvard.
Hogan, J. H.
1887 Directory and History of Plymouth, Mass. South Framingham, MA: W. F. Richardson and Co.
Stewart, A. A.
1918 Type: A Primer of Information. Chicago, IL: The Committee on Education United Typothetae of America.
Updike, Daniel Berkeley
1922 Printing Types: Their History, Forms, and Use. A Study in Survivals. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.