The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale has unlocked its vaults to display its rarest and oldest printed objects in the new exhibit, “Permanent Markers: aspects of the history of printing.”
The exhibit, which is part of the Beinecke’s year-long 50th anniversary celebration, focuses on the history and story of printing, how America has been defined in print, and the role of print in daily life..
The exhibit begins with “Story of Printing” section, which features some of the oldest, reliably dateable pieces of printing in the world, including a set of three Buddhist sutras printed by woodblock between 764 and 770 A.D. in Japan to mourn the war dead after the suppression of the Ema Rebellion of 764, and to offer prayers for lasting peace.
Also on display are three books attributed to Johann Gutenberg in the years following the appearance of his landmark Bible, including Thomas Aquinas’ “De Articulis Fidei,” “Giovanni Balbi’s Catholicon,” and Matthew of Kraków’s “Dialogus Rationis et Conscientiae.” The first book printed in England, “The Book Named the Dictes or Sayengis of the Philosophhres” (circa 1477), is also included, along with other rarely displayed items that reveal the human creative process, including fragments of early printed books recovered from fragile bindings, such as unfolded sheets of pages, and misprinted leaves.
The section on “America Made by Printing” includes the extremely rare first book printed in British North America, “The Bay Psalm Book” (1640), and a copy of the Declaration of Independence (1776). The ways that America was defined in print are explored in early geographies and spelling books, as well as first editions of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” (1855) and Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” (1851), complemented by versions issued in the 20th century related to film and comic book versions of the classic novel. Also on view are copies of the first printing of the Book of Mormon, Phillis Wheatley’s “Poems on Various Subjects Religious and Moral” (1773), and a pair of notable American “firsts”: the first image of the natives of the New World, a woodcut in Christopher Columbus’ letter on his first voyage (1494) and the first use of the word “American” to refer to residents of the country in Thomas Gage’s “The English-American, His Travail by Sea and Land …” (1648).
The exhibit concludes with “Forms & Functions,” an exploration of how print plays a part in everyday life, in the form of printed paper money, playing cards, postcards, and shopping bags. The display features experiments and do-it-yourself printing, from 18th-century French trials with printing in color, to clandestinely printed punk magazines produced on a shoestring in East Berlin during the 1970s. Among the feature items unique to the Beinecke are “disguised” miniature books from France produced during World War II, that appear on their covers to be poetry books, instead reveal instructions for sabotaging German tanks; “rent party” cards collected by poet Langston Hughes to document a social aspect of the Harlem Renaissance; and both of the famous “metal books” produced to celebrate the Futurist aesthetic in the 1930s, “Parole in Libertà” (“Words in Liberty”) and “L’anguria Lirica” (“The Lyrical Watermelon”).
Alternate forms of printing are shown in an early book produced for students of the Pennsylvania Institution for the Instruction of the Blind, using a pre-Braille system of raised Roman letters; printing of stories for children on handkerchiefs (given as awards for academic achievement in the 19th century); books made with rubber stamps and on mimeograph machines; and the first computer-generated poem, Alison Knowles’ “A House of Dust” (ca. 1972).
The exhibit is free and open to the public, and a free commemorative booklet is available to all visitors.
“Permanent Markers” is on view through Sept. 14 and some images from the exhibit are online. For exhibition gallery hours and addition details visit the website.