Letterpress is a type of mechanical press that uses relief printing as a key component for creating printed font and images. Relief printmaking is a process in which parts of the surface of a material are carved away. The remaining raised surface is then inked and printed. The oldest known form of relief printing are ocher earth hand prints that date back to prehistoric times. These hand prints are found in many caves around the world. The use of wood, which is a common material used for relief printing, dates back to ninth century China. Large scale, mass produced relief printing began in the mid-fifthteenth century due to large scale paper making. These mass produced prints were used to spread religious and informational texts and images. This mass production of prints led to the development of moveable type in China. There is archeological evidence of clay moveable type found in China as early as the eleventh century, and metal movable type in 1377. Word of this movable type travelled and found its way to Johannes Gutenberg, who was then inspired to create something that changed the world.
In the fifthteenth century, Johannes Gutenberg adapted the wine press and invented the printing press to suit his printing needs. This press held individual letters and numbers that would sit next to each other so that the printing surface of each piece would be at the same height. These individual letters and numbers would then create words and sentences to then be printed. Gutenberg’s first major publication was the Gutenberg Bible, which was 1282 pages with 42 lines per page printed on vellum. The Gutenberg Bible was a printed edition of 30. This was during a time when religious text was slowly copied by hand and acquired by the exclusive wealthy. Gutenberg created the printed revolution, and created the profession of being a printer.
Letterpress is now viewed as more of a craft due to new technology that has made it “obsolete”. For large format printing, letterpress has been replaced by offset lithography which is faster and lighter. A technique known as a “bite” (creating an embossment with the type and pressure) that was once frowned upon by master printers created a revival of letterpress in the 1990s. From Martha Stewarts letterpress wedding invites to the invention of the polymer plate, letterpress is in a bountiful part of its revival. The question now is, “why does letterpress matter?” “It matters because with a press, one person can mass produce artwork with a style and method not achievable by any other printing medium while also sustaining a craft and preserving history.”
Stein, Jesse. "Masculinity and Material Culture in Technological Transitions: From Letterpress to Offset Lithography, 1960s-1980s." Technology and Culture 57.1 (2016): 24. Web.
Tredwell, Stephen M., Jr. "Advancing the Sustainability of Letterpress Print Production in the 21st Century." University of Central Oklahoma, 7 May 2015. Web. 12 Apr. 2016.