Charlie Thomas, on staff from 1969 to 1971.
PERSONAL: I was born in raised in Harlan County, Kentucky, a coal mining area. I was a SNCC volunteer in Mississippi in 1965-66 and was in federal prison from 1967–1969 for refusing induction. I learned to print at the Free Press and, except for five years as a union organizer, have made a living working in print shops. I'm married and live in Asheville, NC, about 100 miles from where I grew up. Same terrain, no coal...
The Free Press was organized as a collective. Each staff member had a vote on all policies and on what we published. A simple majority was required for any decision, and once a decision was made, we all carried it out, a form of democratic centralism. The shop was a worker-owned, and for some of us, it was the first time we could decide anything on our jobs.
We were all movement people, and I think almost all of us were communists or socialist of one stripe or another. We recognized that the movement was far bigger than any one organization and the purpose of the shop was to serve the whole movement. So we printed for pacifists and the Black Panther Party, all sides of the SDS split, NOW and lesbian separatists, and anyone who was organizing around issues of peace and equality.
As I recall, we paid ourselves $30 per week, just enough to live on in a cheap apartment with two or three roommates. The low pay is what enabled us to keep prices low for the movement printing and the pamphlets we published.
THE FREE PRESS
When I worked at the Free Press it was located at 791 Tremont St. in Roxbury. The shop was on the fourth floor, and when you got off the elevator, you walked down a wide dark corridor to the front door. We had a very large space.
The building had been a piano factory and the ceiling had many shafts and pulleys left over from that time. Using a central power source, a line shaft drove the various saws, mills, and lathes via flat leather belts. The belts and machines were long gone, but our paper cutter was driven by a long leather belt attached to an electric motor mounted on the floor, giving a small look at what had been.
In the left near corner was the dark room and copy camera, a beast of a camera about two feet square. The bellows was brittle from years of use and was patched with tape. We could shoot a line negative up to 17" x 22". The copy board extended into the main shop about fifteen feet and could accommodate copy up to 36" square.
The two presses were in sight when you entered the front door. In the far corner, to the left, was the plate burning apparatus. It consisted of a vacuum board that held the plate and negative and two carbon arc lamps which gave out a brilliant light.
I filled a lot of orders. Sometimes Don typed up the addresses at the end of the day so when I did the second shift at night I would fill them all. He would attach the address label to the order and put it on the order desk.
There were a lot of orders every day, usually about 15 or 20. They varied from a person wanting one of each pamphlet in a section or two sections. Some people ordered one copy of almost everything. A common order was one of each in the Women’s section.
Bulk orders were almost always for Women’s lit. Ten or twenty or 100 copies of Mainardi, Limpus, or Densmore were common. I got a real kick out of these. They were going all over the country, and were clearly meant for sharing.
So if our sales were an indication, 200 women somewhere in the US were reading “The Politics of Housework”, every week, week in and week out. Over time, that meant that tens of thousands of women were reading “Housework” and helping make a change. Women’s groups were everywhere in those years, as you know, and a lot of them read and discussed our pamphlets.
Mainardi was only four pages, one 11 x17 sheet folded, and we could print them efficiently ourselves. Limpus and Densmore and a couple of others were longer, so we had them printed outside the shop, on newsprint. We got them in 5000 and 10,000 lots.
When we published OBOS, sales of women's literature increased. First, thousands of women ordered a copy for themselves. Then the bulk orders started. Ten or twenty copies at a time, and often 100 or more. Some clinics were ordering 100 copies every few weeks. For over a year we sold about 2000 to 3000 per week.
Sales of the other women’s pamphlets increased too.
And all the while we were steadily churning out the rest of the list as well.
We published Women and Their Bodies in December of 1970 and Our Bodies Ourselves in April of 1971.
Don McKelvey typeset the first edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves in a print shop in our building owned by Ray Coleman.
Don was a very fast and accurate typist, a necessity when using the Friden typesetter, because you were typing "blind". There was no display and the only output was a punched paper tape. A mistake there would come into the completed text.
Don typed the text on a keyboard that punched a paper tape. Then the tape was fed into another keyboard that justified the margins. The system was called Friden.
Click here for more info about our publishing Our Bodies, Ourselves.
Hester Butterfield taught me to print. Every staff member learned all the steps in printing, from copy preparation, to photography, to printing and binding.
In turn, I taught a number of others to print.
Our Bible was a Navy manual called "Lithographer 3 & 2." It had complete operating instructions for our two presses, a Chief 20 and a Chief 22.
All of our equipment was old and cantankerous. The presses and the folder required constant adjustment, but Lithographer 3 & 2
The staff trained each other and each staff member learned each step of the process. Hester taught me to print and I taught others, using the "hands in your pocket" technique. After we learned the press controls, the learner would perform the operations while the teacher kept her hands in her pockets, allowing the learner's fingers to get the muscle memory necessary for real learning.
EQUIPMENT: Click here for a list of the equipment the Free Press had.
Don managed the office. I don't think we had formal titles of any kind, but Don knew everything, kept the bank account, typed up the address labels for the orders, and was an expert on the Chief 22.
He typed so fast and error-free that Don always set type. He maintained a good relationship with Ray Coleman who owned another print shop in our building. The two shops helped each other when needed and Don set the type for Our Bodies, Ourselves in Ray's shop.