Did you know that the letterpress can very well claim to be the fifteenth century equivalent of the World Wide Web? Yep, this old world invention forever changed the face of communication and the speed in which information could pass from person to person.
Most notably, it gave birth to the “press,” the purveyors of ideas that shape culture and influence the direction of both politics and progress. And until the late 19th century, all printed material – from books to newspapers to brochures to cards – were made using the letterpress.
A Little History
Invented in the mid-1400s by German blacksmith Johannes Gutenberg, the letterpress revolutionized how books were printed and distributed in Europe. In designing movable type, Gutenberg fathered a much easier, faster way for information to be replicated and communicated. Not only did the letterpress accomplish this great feat, but it also reflected the intersection of industry, science and the arts. Innovators of later centuries continued to tinker on his original press, leading to the creation of thousands of different typefaces.
Using a letterpress is labor intensive, but it’s a labor of love, and there’s absolutely an art to the craft. The process begins by arranging blocks of metal type to form words and sentences. For a larger item like a poster, most blocks need to be carved out of wood. Once the blocks are set in the right order, a letterpress works its magic – it presses paper onto the type blocks, which are coated with ink. The ink is then impressed onto the paper and reflects the letters of the blocks. While the process sounds simple, great skill is required to achieve a consistent, polished look, as it’s done entirely by hand.
Bringing Letterpress Into the 21st Century
Over the years, letterpress printing became less popular due to the invention of lithography and offset printing (how newspapers are printed). Fast forward to the late 1970s when the age of computers took hold, and the dawn of digital printing ultimately forced letterpress printing to nearly go the way of the dodo.
So why the renewed interest?
Nostalgia is a significant element that plays into the resurgence of letterpress printing. As digital printers spit out perfect machine-made replications on a large scale, designers and consumers alike yearn for more tactile imperfection. There’s that undeniable touch of humanity to letterpress printing that binds the creator to the ink left behind, connecting them to the reader in a distant, yet intimate way. Communities across the globe celebrating the bespoke nature of the craft have emerged; thousands of small letterpress shops now create greeting cards and wedding invites – moments that specifically call for love and connection.
Just as Gutenberg’s successors evolved his press, today’s printers continue to play with letterpress, even fusing it with modern technology. A sprinkling of schools and (Oregon College of Art and Craft, Southwest School of Art, Seattle’s School of Visual Concepts and Rochester Institute of Technology to name a few) have brought back the craft with fully equipped workshops and often encourage projects that bring it to the forefront of design. A student at Hamilton College in New York is one such letterpress aficionado. After falling in love with an ornate 1800s typeface, he modeled and 3D-printed versions of the elaborate type. Other letterpress printers experiment with new ways to create designs, such as by cutting linoleum by hand and then engraving finer details with a laser.
Thanks to these schools and communities, traditional letterpress printing continues to delight and charm viewers with exquisite typefaces and beautiful imperfection. To dive even deeper into the fascinating world of letterpress, check out our article, “Printing with Love” originally published in the Fall 2015 issue of Craftsmanship Quarterly!