Susan Carter Morgan’s Journey to Letterpress

In 1986—the year of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, Europe’s “The Final Countdown,” and IBM’s first laptop microprocessor—Susan Carter Morgan discovered her love for computers. “I remember when the Internet began. It was text based, not visual. I was fascinated by it,” says Susan. “I started stringing routers around my house.” It was in those first years of the Internet revolution that Susan realized the power of community.

For the Love of Teaching

Susan began teaching for a Stafford County middle school in 1975, hailing from Rhode Island. “I didn’t know if I would stay because I’m really a New England sort of person,” says Susan. “But I loved it.”

Later, while teaching journalism at a Spotsylvania County school, she had the opportunity to work as a journalist at the Free Lance Star for a summer. Not wanting to leave her new-found post, Susan stayed there for three years. But she missed teaching. It was then that she took a job at Fredericksburg Academy.

While an English teacher at heart, Susan worked as the director of technology for many years, teaching web design and helping teachers integrate tech into their classrooms. “The Internet changed the way I taught.” Susan began to connect with teachers and do online projects. “Teaching is isolating, and I loved reaching out.” She did many online projects that allowed her students to work with, and hear from, peers that lived thousands of miles away.

She taught a total of 30 years across the region.

From High-Tech to Low-Tech

Her first press, a table-top Morgan Line-O-Scribe, was originally a proof press. Her second table-top press, a Golding Pearl #1, is referred to as a clamshell because as you pull the hand down a roller, it presses together and makes an impression on the paper.

“Working with my students, I loved the design aspect of taking type and white space and putting them together and telling a story,” says Susan. “We all have stories to tell, and I love sharing them.”

After retiring from her teaching career, Susan happened upon a letterpress class in Alexandria. After a one-day crash course, she was in love. Susan says, “I remember coming out of this class and thinking ‘I have to keep doing this.’”

There are two kinds of letterpress printers: those that use only traditional metal and wooden pieces, and those that use custom-designed polymer plates that allow them to incorporate any design into their piece. Realizing that there was so much to learn, she took some classes at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond.

Letterpress Jargon

Leading (pronounced “ledding”): metal spacer used to control the space between the lines.
Chase: metal frame used to “lock-up” type, leading, and spacers. Everything has to be so tight that if you pick it up nothing wiggles around.
Type Foundry: The original type foundries that produced letters for the letterpress were cast from a harder composition of metal. Foundries that exist today use a softer metal composition. Having “foundry” type means you have type that was cast in the original days of the letterpress.
Printer: A person who sets type and uses a letterpress machine.
Press: The letterpress itself.
Brayer: A roller used to ink the letterpress plate.

“I had no plans to buy a press,” says Susan. But three years ago she was given the opportunity to buy a small, table-top press, and she bought it. Letterpresses aren’t being made anymore. They’re all vintage or antique pieces of equipment that carry their own history and stories with them.

At her own shop, Downtown Writing and Press, Susan doesn’t limit herself to just traditional or new methods. She combines both techniques to create, invent, and experiment. To say that letterpress design is low-tech would be a misnomer. At Susan’s studio she also uses high-end, high-tech design programs for custom-designed polymer plates.

While she has about 15 different typefaces, the Downtown Writing and Press house typeface is Caslon.
While she has about 15 different typefaces, the Downtown Writing and Press house typeface is Caslon.

A Home at Forage

In order to have a workspace just a few blocks from her home, Susan works with her table-top presses in the second-floor creative space of Forage (a used and vintage consignment shop in downtown Fredericksburg, VA). Her large press—named Babbie after her artistic, inspiring grandmother—sits in her sunroom at home. This thousand-pound Chandler & Price masterpiece was meticulously transported from the truck to her sunroom in an astonishing eight hour time period.

“They had to bring the press down the stone steps on the side of the house,” says Susan, “by placing pieces of wood on one side, moving the press a short distance, picking up the wood from behind the press, and placing it back in front.”

Community Connector

When Susan isn’t printing on a press or writing poetry, you can bet that she’ll be somewhere in the community giving a helping hand. She supports other small businesses and is always ready to lend her time and talents for the good of a friend. This introvert’s love of community is one of the reasons that her pieces are being sold all over the region. Places like Heather’s Boutique, LibertyTown Arts, Agora Coffee, and Harriet’s General in Culpeper carry her one-of-a-kind note cards and posters.

If you’re not in the neighborhood, be sure to check out her Etsy shop.

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