The history of the letterpress machine begins in the mid 1400’s with Johannes Gutenberg (1, 2). At this time in history, books were not available to the general public. Bringing books to the common public became his became Gutenberg’s mission and he spent several years refining the process (2). He began with wooden type, carving the letters out by hand. Then he would set them up, and press paper over the top, creating an impression (2). This was a very big step forward from using blocks of wood to print a single page. This method allowed for type to be moveable and readjusted for each page (2). Gutenberg soon realized that the printed letterforms could be improved by creating the typefaces out of metal (2). After endless hours of development and practice, he printed one hundred and eighty copies of the Bible on a “screw press” (2). This great accomplishment was the beginning of printed materials, therefore new ideas, being available beyond the royal family and those with significant money.
The invention of moveable type eventually led to type design. Starting in the early 1700’s designers such as William Caslon, John Baskerville began creating their own typefaces (1). Historic documents such as the Declaration of Independence were printed using Caslon’s type (2). Paper improvements as well as slight modifications to the presses ensued as time passed, but for the most part, the systems and processes for creating prints and books remained the same (1,2).
In the mid-1900’s, commercialized printing gained popularity and eventually surpassed letterpress. The speed and efficiency of commercialized printing could not be ignored, so the letterpress industry faded for a time (2). Although it seemed that new technology would push out the original art and function of letterpress, it was soon discovered that both old and new technology could be combined. The 1980’s brought the discovery of the photopolymer plates, revolutionizing letterpress to bring it in to contemporary design (1).
The photopolymer plates are design in the computer. They are images, patterns, designs etc., created using Photoshop or Illustrator, made in to vectors and printed in black and white on to special paper. They are then developed on to photosensitive polymer plates using UV light exposure. This method creates an opportunity for design or creation to be effectively (and cost-efficiently) replicated for letterpress printing. The photopolymer sheet is set on a plate that makes it the appropriate height, and printing can commence as if it were the traditional metal or wood type. Baltimore Print Studios has a great post (http://ohsobeautifulpaper.com/2012/01/the-printing-process-letterpress-printing/) that really showcases the benefits photopolymer plates have brought to the letterpress design process (3).
It is safe to say that most letterpress studios today are using both handset type as well as photopolymer plates to create their designs. One studio, Repeat Press, is a great example of what a modern letterpress studio looks like. This studio, in Somerville, MA, creates only custom work for their clients (4). They use photopolymer plates on almost all of their projects, which allow them the ability to constantly be creating custom design work (4). With their photopolymer plates, the studio has also collected an assortment of wood type, which brings the combination of vintage and contemporary design together on the press. Another great example of the combination of new and old is the work done by Sarah at the Permanent Collection Letterpress & Design Studio in Iowa (5). Her work embraces a Midwestern style by finding solutions in the combination of contemporary cursive and traditional, wood-block style type. Her prints are trendy and very cute, but maintain elegance based on the way they were printed. She summarizes the art of letterpress beautifully in her company’s name and her design motto: that letterpress gives words and art a permanent place in special moments.
I have also had the opportunity to experience the wonderful evolution of the letterpress first hand. My intention in taking a letterpress class at ASU was to simply learn the function of the vintage machines. I am so excited to be coming out of the class learning so much more. As a graphic designer, I have typeset many things on digitally, but being able to experience that on the tactile level provided by the metal and wood type in our shop. Then, being able to utilize the photopolymer plates in my designs helped to push my concepts to the next level. My pieces feel so much more intentional when printed on a letterpress and I hope that I can continue expanding my knowledge in this area. I believe that it will be very beneficial to me as a designer.
Contemporary letterpress is such a great combination of old and new. I hope that in reading this short history of letterpress, you will remember that behind the beauty, intricacy and tactile sensation of letterpress, is innovation that revolutionized communication in the western world.