Some Notes about Printing at Black Mountain College

With all its novelties and innovations, it is no wonder that Black Mountain College is still studied today as a model of experimental and democratic education. One of the opportunities afforded students was instruction and practical experience using a printing press. Through the collections at the Western Regional Archives we are able to piece together snippets about presses and typefaces used at the college.


Betty Brett printing on a Challenge Gordon printing press, 1941. BMC Collections, WRA.

In 1936, Xanti Schawinsky, a short-term instructor in The Arts, enlisted the help of Robert L. Leslie, a New York editor. Leslie sent Black Mountain College a cabinet full of old typefaces, including Bodoni and Roman, remnants acquired from the Brooklyn Ethical Culture School. They were unpacked and sorted “with much excitement.” Leslie also bought a secondhand printer for $100 and shipped it to Black Mountain requesting that the college pay $40 towards the purchase. Schawinsky offered a course in typography that academic year.

According to a 1971 interview with former students Emil Willimetz and Susan Noble Gordon, a second printing press at Black Mountain College, a foot-powered Chandler Price machine, was acquired with the help of student David Way who had an interest in producing a magazine with Willimetz. It was said that Stephen Forbes footed much of the bill. The 1937–1938 Black Mountain College Catalog boasts “the print shop contains two hand presses, with several type fonts and complete accessories.”

Robert Haas, a visiting instructor in printing and photography in 1940, made his own typefaces. It was Haas who printed the striking programs for the campus production of Macbeth. However, the print shop fell dormant for a number of years until it was unearthed by student Jim Tite in 1946.


Program for Macbeth printed by Robert Haas, 1940. BMC Collections, WRA.

Tite wrote of finding the old printing press in an unused portion of the woodworking shop in Black Mountain College: Sprouted Seeds: An Anthology of Personal Accounts. He shared his discovery with Theodore Rondthaler and asked that he be allowed to clean up and restore the printing press. Working with fellow student Ann Mayar, they sorted the type, oiled and repaired the press, and cleaned up the shed to make a printing shop. To get a better understanding of the work, they sojourned to Asheville to learn from printers.

Tite then suggested to Rondthaler and Bill Levi (both men were instructors as well as members of the college’s Board of Fellows), that he might teach a course in practical printing. The class materialized and was split into two sections, one taught by Frank Rice. The press was used to create printed material for the college to save money. After acquiring a surplus (albeit brand new) Kluge press from the VA Hospital in Oteen, the campus was well-equipped to tackle the printing of programs, catalogs, newsletters, and chapbooks of student’s poetry.

In 1949, John McCandless was offered a position teaching printing for a year. He prepared a detailed report on the state of the shop, presses, and the type. By 1952 Carroll Williams was listed in the college catalog as the printing instructor. By the mid-1950s, printing was done in linotype.


About Western Regional Archives

Western branch of the State Archives of North Carolina. We opened in August 2012 and our mission is to help preserve, and make accessible the documentary heritage of western North Carolina. We are located at 176 Riceville Rd., Asheville, NC and can be found on the web and on facebook.
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