A (very) brief history of letterpress.
The invention of the letterpress is credited to Johannes Gutenberg in the 1500s (though ceramic movable type was in use in China in the 1000s) — and it’s how information traveled for hundreds of years. Of all the crafts I can think of, this is the one that has had the single greatest impact. Letterpress is the reason scribes didn’t need to carefully copy out precious books page-by-page. It’s the reason stories could be mass-produced and the reason Shakespeare could publish his plays. It’s why kids could have access to the written word in school, and how they learned how to read. And it remained the most popular printing method until the 20th century and the introduction of offset printing.
It’s not used in the same way today. There are way more efficient and cost-effective ways to print novels, textbooks, posters and newspapers. Even old-school letterpress printers admit that. And after half a century of declining interest and technological advancement, lots of beautiful antique presses have spent decades rusting away in garages and barns.
A (very) brief history of my press.
That’s where I found my press. It had been sitting around for at least 30 years in the home of a man whose father had been one of those old-school press operators. My dad and I moved the 1200-pound cast-iron monster with the help of a pallet, enormous industrial casters, and a gigantic moving truck; and when it finally sat quietly on my garage floor, I barely knew where to begin. It wasn’t ready to print — not even close.
(I'll do a real post soon on my press restoration process, but it's probably a series in itself, so here's a little snapshot for now.)
It took months of restoration. I soaked the whole thing in Purple Power grease remover, all at once and then in individual pieces. I scrubbed away rust from every piece with a whole host of different solutions from vinegar to steel wool. I dug grease out of every one of the dozens of oil holes with just my fingertips and some old drill bits. I ordered replacements for all three of the old rubber rollers from Ramco, a great place in San Diego. I got a new cast-iron treadle from the only mill that still makes them — and when it didn’t quite fit, I took a Dremel to it for 6 hours until it did. Along the way, I looked up the original serial number and found my press’s birthday: 1913. More than a century old, and about to get a whole new lease on life.
Now that I've restored my first press, I can tell you what it feels like: rescuing a dog. Here's this thing that needed my help, and sure, I saved it; but now it's helping me in return just as much — emotionally, and in this case, I guess practically too.... I'm fully attached to it now. This press isn't going anywhere. (And not just because it weighs a literal ton.)
Print is not dead!
My press does have a new life now, bringing designs from a laptop screen to my clients' fingertips. And in the same way, letterpress as an art form has a new life as well. The audience for letterpress has expanded, because more people understand what’s special about it. No other print method has that same tactile draw people respond to. It's emotional in a way that digital or offset just can't match. Letterpress prints are kept and treasured, in a world where "print is dead" and most paper ends up trashed.
It's a whole new world for letterpress, and I think my press is happy to be part of it again.
Check it out in all its glory in this fancy video — a little eye candy for letterpress lovers.