Pressing Matters Beneath Adams

Bow and Arrow Press offers House unique artistic possibilities

In the tunnels under Adams House B-Entryway is a treasure of the House: the Bow and Arrow Press.

Part of the literary and artistic legacy left from before randomization, it is a reminder of the House’s roots.

The print shop dates to 1978, when a group of Adams residents found a long-forgotten printing press in the house basement.

They dragged it out of storage and taught themselves how to use it, and the Bow and Arrow Press was born.

According to Ralph G. Vetters ’85, one of the current print masters and a former Adams resident, the press enjoyed a “golden age” in the late 1980s.

The press was an active and nationally known workshop at the time, and its leader, Gino Lee ’86, went on to become a well-known graphic designer and co-creator of the Mac OS X font “Zapfino.”

The press’s popularity has dwindled since then, but Vetters says it is undergoing a revival.

Last Friday, the Bow and Arrow acquired a typecasting machine that will allow the shop to make its own type from lead. Projects were formerly limited by the press’s supply of letters, since each piece of type can only be used once per page.

“We won’t be setting a poem and suddenly run out of e’s,” Vetters says of the change.

Judging from the cards and posters that hang from the walls, the press has a long history in Adams House. Signs listing hours for the House’s clothing-optional pool—now a theater—share space with an invitation from the President and Fellows of the Harvard Cigar Society to their first smoker, held last semester.

The shop has expanded over the years to include four presses, which inky-handed undergraduates can use on Wednesday and Thursday evenings. One is a galley press used for printing quick proofs. Two are larger, standard presses. A fourth is a clamshell platen press used for creating small items such as cards and invitations.

According to Vetters, this brand of clamshell platen press is no longer produced, and the Bow and Arrow’s is “probably over one hundred years old.”

On a typical night, two or three students will be designing posters, setting type and inking rollers as they prepare their creations for press. Many users of the press are from Adams, according to co-print master and former Adams resident Sarah M. Hulsey ’01, but students come from all of the River Houses and several first-year dorms.

Most projects are artistic or literary, such as an advertisement for the queer art show “Beautiful Rebellion,” by Han Yu ’06, or a setting of a Catullus poem Abigail S. Miller ’05.

Although most printing nowadays is done directly from computer (via offset printing), Hulsey says letter press is ideal for making small, high-quality runs.

“Letter press is popular now for different reasons,” he says. “You can make much more beautiful things here than you can make with offset. It’s the quality of the ink and the paper.”