Black Carbon Powder for Ink

Franklin Court


In October 2019 we traveled to to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for the Guild of Bookworkers Standards Conference. Such a historical, beautiful city and home to the Philly cheesesteak. We stayed in Philly’s South side apartment behind the Independence Hall and we got there a day early to see the Old City which seemed to be in a state of renovation. I wanted to visit Franklin Court, home and business of Benjamin Franklin, which is located on Market Street. At the Franklin Museum, you find the first U.S. post office he started still in operation next door to his press and bindery.

As you pass through the carriage passageway, you find an open square court that displays the Robert Venturi installation. The Venturi installation comprises 54 foot steel structures constructed in 1976 to mark the place of Franklin’s original type foundry and home. Franklin would walk from his home through the carriage entrance to his press, bindery, and business office. His home would have been 33 feet square with 10 rooms. The home and type foundry was torn down in 1812 and replaced with commercial buildings. It is said that on the second floor of his home there was an extensive library salon that served as a retreat for himself and friends.

The Market Street strip that the Franklin press, bindery, and post office faces, between 3rd and 4th Streets started out with 5 structures that various tradespeople occupied. The County Jail and Workhouses were located on the corner of 3rd and Market. The current Franklin Museum building, 1st Post Office, bindery business office and tenant house were built between 1786-1787. The building replaced a previous smaller structure that was built by John Read, Franklin’s future father-in-law. As Franklin’s fortune’s grew so did his family, expanding the family’s ownership of buildings along the strip between 3rd and 4th Streets. His grandson, Benjamin Franklin Bache, lived one door down from the post office. By 1806, Market Street became a thriving merchants strip; booksellers, ironmongers, goldsmiths, skin dressers, apothecaries, and innkeepers.

Inside the Franklin Museum, park staff demonstrate printing on a model press with 2 “inkballs”. Type is selected from a job case and set on a composing stick or tray. The lines of type are then moved into the press chase and locked into place with wooden and metal furniture.

Inkballs are wooden mallets with handles that are covered with padding and leather. The ink is made from black carbon ground typically with something like linseed oil on an ink plate to a smooth sticky paste. The printer would load the inkball dabbers with ink then hit them together in the air like cymbals until the ink is evenly distributed on the leather surface. The ink all’s are then dabbed onto the set type locked into the press bed. A mask frame is laid over the type to prevent any stray inking from transferring to the print and paper laid down on top. The bed is rolled under the press platen and the handle is pulled to stamp the paper into the type to make an impression.

Next door to the press is the bindery room containing a standing press, sewing frames, pressing boards, board shear, and standing plough. Along the back wall are brass wheels hanging in a wooden case. Printed folios would be assembled in signatures. Then sewn together into text blocks. The text blocks might be “ploughed” (ploughing is the method of trimming the textbook top, fore-edge, and bottom edges) to the finished size and then bound in leather and gold finished with the brass wheels and titled.

It is fortunate that these buildings are still present to give visitors a glimpse into Franklin’s many interest and contributions.

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