Letterpress is Dead. Long Live Letterpress.

A Pub, Somewhere in Europe, circa 1500 C.E. — Five scribes, Friedrich, Franz, Hans, François and Gustav, are sitting around a table drowning their sorrows. This new-fangled printing press turned out not to be just another block printing fad. It’s spreading across Europe like the plague, putting calligraphers and scribes out of business! Five more over here, barkeep….

Poor guys. They had good reason to drink. By the year 1500 – that’s just 50 years after Gutenberg invented movable type – over a million books had been printed in Europe. And that’s just books. Almost everything scribes could do, the printing press could do almost as well, and in great volumes, at a fraction of the price. There’s no denying that a highly sophisticated and skilled craft had been supplanted by a clever device of technological wizardry. Those scribes probably thought what everyone thinks in that situation. It’s all over.

Or was it?

Of the five increasingly tipsy calligraphers at the table, Friedrich decides that copying legal documents and indentures bored him silly, so he’s going to run off with the next group of minstrels and actors and live a life of fun and adventure. Another, Fritz, is bug-eyed with religious dread after copying endless Indulgences for the church and figures on hedging his bets by taking the cowl. Hans’ attitude is if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, and he’s already thinking about setting up his own press. The youngest at the table, Francois has borrowed money from family to apprentice with a bookbinder. Finally, Gustav looks about at the four men around him and their ever-changing world, and sees that while times have indeed changed, the world still has need of his skills. He loves his work, and it shows in the quality he produces, so that even these new-fangled printers come to him to embellish their special editions with illuminated and decorated letters.

So it went. Scribes never had it so good ever again, but fine calligraphy survived as a specialized trade until quite recently. Currently, it has fallen into the hands of artists who bend the traditional boundaries, but who keep the craft alive, thank you very much.

Those five scribes may have fantasized about the nib being on the other pen, so to speak – when letterpress itself would face technological obliteration. They would have had to live almost 500 years to see it, but it would happen. The early warning signs came in the late 19th century, when the highly skilled craftsmen who cut wood engravings for books and newspapers found themselves scanning the classifieds after new reproduction techniques made illustrating printed material a snap. It wasn’t long before the same techniques were used to reproduce type. Ironically, the process took about 70 years, until in the 1970s it became rather difficult to buy presses, type, supplies or service for letterpress. Unlike scribes, most pressmen made the transition from raised type (letterpress) to flat plates (offset) easily and perhaps cheerfully. So pressmen didn’t go to the pub to drink about becoming obsolete. They were in the pub just because pressmen drink. No excuse required.

With the end of letterpress, fine press and hobby printers have inherited the magic of that by-gone age, and yet, the spirit of dispirit still hovers over us. In websites, blogs and articles by noted fine press printers, frequent reference to ‘this dying art’ recur with depressing frequency. Call me a dreamy-eyed optimist, but I take exception to that stance. And to illustrated my defiance, here is my very own top ten list of reasons why letterpress printing will still be around for centuries to come:

1) Interest and understanding in letterpress is increasing, not decreasing, helped along by the onslaught of laser and digital technology, ironically enough. The more ‘jacked in’ our society becomes, the more people seem to be searching for the real thing. They’re looking for presses, or just learning to appreciate the value of hand printing. Some day they may become collectors.
2) There’s a long list of crafts that have survived the test of time. Like calligraphy, they may no longer be a major sector of the economy, but they have survived. So it’s not like letterpress is the first to survive obsolescence.
3) Presses are scarce, costs for them are escalating, but people are still paying the price, according to reliable sources. When demand hits a certain level, some clever tool & die guy is going to start making presses again (if he hasn’t begun already).
4) Most of the equipment was made to endure. And as far as I know, good machinists can still make replacement parts.
5) There are a dozen sources for new type still in operation, and ample supplies of old type, with more turning up all the time. (As long as Don Black Linecasting is operating in Toronto, I’ll never be pessimistic!)
6) Digital graphics and type can be rendered to relief plates in magnesium and copper, opening up a world of possibilities.
7) Letterpresses can use offset ink, so no issues there until offset goes dodo-bound.
8] The old guard is passing on the wisdom. They’re teaching newbies.
9) There is an established collector community that loves to buy hand printed books.
10) Those who love it will not let it perish.

I could go on, but I won’t.

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One Comment on “Letterpress is Dead. Long Live Letterpress.”

  1. Richard Says:

    Great post Larry! An excellent tale to illustrate how passion for a trade or vocation will enable it to last for generations to come while technoninnies continue to prophesy decline of everything to the almighty Gods of progress and industry.

    You should letpress the post for a future Wayzgoose entry!


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