At Odds with the World

Dale Fehringer

Copyright 2012 by Dale Fehringer 


Photo of a Saturn Press card.

The highest-tech solution isn't always the best, as this author recently discovered.

We’re still at odds with the world …We employ two typewriters, some 3x5 card files, a stack of pencils and pens, and some carbon forms … Even the building we work in was built by us. Nail by nail, board by board, all by ourselves. Call us stubborn, antiques, dinosaurs. All compliments to us.”

You can feel the difference when you hold one of their greeting cards in your hands.
It has deep, rich colors; a lush texture; and impressions from the printing press. It feels like a human made it, and it has value.

That’s what Jane and Jim at Saturn Press hope you will feel; it’s what they are trying to achieve.

For more than a quarter of a century they have engaged their craft, designing and printing more than a million high-quality greeting cards each year, without the conveniences and trappings of modern technology. Their methods are old-fashioned and environmentally-friendly. They are quirky, and to some extent at odds with the world. They are unique.

Tranquil Setting

Saturn Press is located on Swan’s Island, a small, sparsely-populated isle a few miles off the coast of Maine. It’s a beautiful and tranquil setting. It’s also remote. The only way to get there is a 30-minute ferry ride from Bass Harbor on the mainland. The isolation affects every aspect of life, and for a business like Saturn Press, it means everything has to be brought to the island by ferry and taken out that way, too.

Their building is off the beaten path, nestled in a grove of trees, surrounded by a neatly-manicured garden with beds of ferns and irises. An array of windows on both floors of the two-story building bathes the interior in natural light, which makes it feel bright and cheerful.

Jane greets you at the door and offers a tour of the 5,000 square-foot building, which consists of a small display area where cards can be purchased, an office, a press room, and a small shipping area. Upstairs, Jane commands a design room, where next year’s holiday cards are in various stages of production.

Saturn Press was founded in 1986 by Jane Goodrich and James vanPernis (they refer to themselves as Grandma and Grandpa Letterpress). For the first few years they designed and printed their cards in Jane’s garage; then in 1996 they moved to the Arts and Crafts style building they designed and built.

Jane is the design, marketing, and customer service departments, and Jim makes up maintenance and production. They are artists and craftspeople and they are fulfilled, but they are also modest. When asked if he is proud of what he does, Jim simply replied, “It suits me.”

There are no computers. Instead, they operate their business with telephones, two typewriters (one a manual typewriter from the 1940s), and a fax machine. That’s part of their quirkiness, and when you think about it, it’s remarkable.

Simply Beautiful Greeting Cards

Jane creates the cards by searching through her collection of “ephemera,” or images that were once used in ads or greeting cards. When she finds a suitable image, she creates her own version of it by hand; first sketching an outline and then adding color and a message. .

The cards are beautiful and they evoke a simpler time. The images are striking, yet unpretentious, and the messages are straight forward.

If you obey all the rules you miss all the fun,” a card proclaims, quoting Katharine Hepburn. The image shows a woman sitting on a beach in a sleeveless blouse, sun hat, and long skirt, enjoying the sunshine.

Jane designs a catalog to display the cards and groups them in categories like “well said,” “the wisdom of women,” and “animal parade.” The cards are sold in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the U.K., and Japan. Orders are generated through the catalog, at trade shows, and by a handful of contract sales people.

Orders are filled by hand, often packed into re-cycled boxes or envelops, and hauled out to the post office, where they are delivered by ferry to the mainland, where they are distributed and sold. Their largest customers are the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, Whole Foods Supermarkets in the U.S., and upscale greeting card stores.

Printed with Skill and Patience

Saturn Press's greeting cards are printed on four antique printing presses.  Their first press was built in Chicago in 1932.  Jim and Jane bought it in 1985 (for $800) and moved it in a rental truck (and ferry) to Swan's Island.  It still runs today, powered by its original eighty-year-old electric motor.  Jim says the only care it requires is a few drops of oil and some tender loving care.  It is joined by three other antique printing presses that Jim and Jane acquired over the years, and today the four presses stand side-by-side in the small printing room at Saturn Press.  In their day, all four presses (Heidelberg and Miehle) were the finest of their kind.

When Jim receives a card proof from Jane, he selects and sets the type by hand and lines it up in a frame. He has accumulated a good-sized collection of lead type over the years from printers, who basically discarded it, and even from a monastery in Illinois.  

He mixes printing ink by hand, stirring together colors until the blend is exactly the right shade.  

Then he starts printing by loading card stock on one of the antique presses and starting the press.  A metal arm picks up a sheet of paper and places it on the printing bed, where it is pressed by the inked type.  The arm moves it aside and puts another in its place.  On it goes, one card at a time, and the room is filled with the rhythm of mechanical clacks and thumps.  

The process is repeated and each card passes through the printing press as many times as there are colors on it, so Jim often prints the cards several times.  It's a slow, tedious process that requires an infinite amount of patience.    

Didn’t Mean to be Green

Their business is environmentally-friendly, although they say they “didn’t mean to be green.” Isolation and hardship forced them to adopt efficient methods a long time ago, and it’s now a natural part of the way they do business.
Being “green” has helped them contain their costs, and it also makes their business more predictable. An example: In 1999 their largest customer (Barnes and Noble) sent them an affidavit to sign and return stating there would be no problems filling orders associated with Y2K. Saturn Press was the only vendor to sign and return the form. No computers, no problems.

Adding to the World

It's refreshing to know that an old-fashioned and environmentally-friendly business can still exist in today's high-pressure, instant-communication world.  Saturn Press is one that has survived for more than a quarter century, and the owners, who refer to themselves as Grandma and Grandpa Letterpress, are determined and somewhat eccentric artists who use ingenuity, craftsmanship, and old-fashioned technology to produce beautiful, high-quality greeting cards in a "green" manner.  

Jim and Jane like to say they are at odds with the world.  Maybe they are.  But they also add to the world by creating beautiful images and words that help people share their sentiments with each other.   And it seems to me that in many ways their methods of doing things make a whole lot of sense.

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