Pulling the Press

Pulling the Press

The Revival of Letterpress Printing

The recent resurgence of letterpress printing can most likely be attributed to a few simple reasons. Along with the nostalgic/contrarian factor, letterpress printing contains an interesting “human element” to it. Even supposing everything goes well and the printing press works fine, the final results of a job will invariably have a number of discrepancies from that of a modern print job. In the postcards I printed with my group, even discounting the somewhat splotchy consistency in inking, I noticed that different words, even using the same letters, would have very subtle differences; for instance, one “n” would be slightly thicker than the one a few lines down, likely as a result of our group members different strengths when using the press. The human eye is naturally inclined to compare a given object to its immediate surroundings and search for differences. In this sense, letterpress printing likely induces a sense of ‘homestyle work, similar to how modern day communities like Etsy, where users sell homemade goods, are popular even against companies that can mass produce goods of an assured quality.

Gayomali’s article on typeface aesthetics and how they can significantly affect a reader’s engagement in a given article brings to mind similar points, supporting the idea that the newfound popularity of letterpress printing may be (at least in part) due to the aesthetic/human factor. Lynch’s article on the en space also provides a possible explanation. In it, she talks about the modernization and standardization of the printing process, and of how blank space was gradually phased out, as it only meant lost profit. To that end, a certain amount of creativity was phased out, and the negative space is today seen as something special. Traditional letterpress printing, with its tendency to leave more blank spaces than on something computer printed material, thus appears unique in the advertisement-run world we live.

Additionally, the actual act of producing a print through the letterpress process may be appealing in itself. This website linked in the lab prompt claims that

After becoming disenchanted with the digital workflow, the tangible process becomes almost therapeutic.

Across human history, an often repeated adage has been the power of human effort and elbow grease. This emphasis is particularly noticeable in American folklore, such as in the tale of John Henry, who was said to have beaten a new steel drill in a race to carve a tunnel through a mountain, dying afterwards. Competition amongst ourselves and cheering for the best-of-the-best, who put in years of effort to stand where they do, has been a popular event since the ancient Greeks. This idea can be applied on a much smaller scale to the current phenomenon regarding letterpress printing. From my personal perspective, I initially found the process to be fairly frustrating. However, I quickly “got into it”, and found myself feeling satisfied when the process was finished and my group’s postcards lay before us, moreso than if I had just printed out a card online. In other words, from the perspective of those actually doing the letterpress printing, there may be some enjoyable aspect.

Overall, the current case of letterpress spells interesting implications about society when comparing it to its predecessors. Letterpress printing as a practical art is long dead, objectively inferior to modern methods in every functional sense, and actually doing the process arguably doesn’t reveal much that couldn’t be learned from simply reading about it. Yet I, and seemingly many other people, have found the process enjoyable and the results pleasant, despite all that. Whether this is a simple neurological effect based on the difference in work done, or what isn’t especially clear. However, that we still have a natural urge to connect with our past and revert history is a fascinating phenomenon.