From the time of Johannes Gutenberg until the middle of the twentieth century, if you wanted to print a large number of copies of something, you would probably have it printed on a letterpress. On a letterpress, raised type or images are inked with rollers, and then make direct contact with the paper.
Offset printing, where the paper is inked by flat rubber rollers, became cheaper and more commercially viable than letterpress, and many letterpresses were scrapped or stayed on in printing shops to serve other purposes, such as making die cuts. But many presses survived through the interest of hobbyists or other letterpress enthusiasts who appreciate the many unique qualities of items printed on a letterpress. The machines themselves were often beautiful objects, cast out of iron and built to last for centuries.
Letterpress is a curious mixture of the hand made and the machine made.
Type is often set by hand, letter by letter, and most presses are powered by hand cranks or foot treadles or levers. The finished product has a tactile quality, since most modern letterpress printers choose to make deep impressions in the paper, to take advantage of what letterpresses can do that can’t be done by offset presses or photocopiers or inkjet printers.
In its day, letterpress was the fastest way to print in volume. In an age of instant Internet publishing, it is a throwback to a slower era, where patience, craftsmanship, and quality mattered.
For more information…
If you want to learn more about letterpress and antique printing presses, here are some great resources.
- The Briar Press website is a treasure trove of information. It has a museum of presses as well as classifieds and resources for letterpress printers.
- The New York Times did a great article in December, 2006, about the letterpress revival.
- David Rose’s Introduction to Letterpress has more good information and links in one page than you’ll be able to process in one sitting. Unless you have a very long attention span and a lot of time on your hands.
- Letterpress Things, in Western Massachusetts, doesn’t have a big online presence. But every other week or so, John Barrett opens up his shop, an entire floor of an old paper warehouse full of type, presses, ink, tools, supplies. John is also a font of knowledge, who has helped many a small press get the information, contacts, and equipment they need to get started. They are now also offering occasional weekend classes taught by Kelly MacMahon of the May Day Studio in Vermont.