Lab 6 Pulling the Press

Pulling the Press: The Messages of Print

As with other “artisanal practices,” what was so appealing about using the letterpress was the ability to produce and polish a final product with one’s own hands. The tendency of younger generations to preserve and replicate methods of older generations extends beyond nostalgia and touches upon the value of different media. Drawing from Liu’s ideas of “the medium is the message,” the preservation and replication of any medium must also preserve a particular message, meaning, or value. And while the content of “artisanal” products remains the same, perhaps it is the medium (the method and its message itself) that we are fascinated by because of a specific value it holds. Below, I stipulate a few reasons as to why I think artisanal practices such as letterpress printing have such appeal outside of their historical moment and within our own today.

Artisanal Practices: Product vs. Craft

Reflecting on the lab, I wonder if letterpress printing in its time and use was considered an “artisanal craft” in the same way we view beer-brewing, sewing, or bread-baking today. The Oxford Dictionary defines “artisan,” as “a worker in a skilled trade, especially one that involves making things by hand,” or as something “made in a traditional or non-mechanized way using high-quality ingredients [italics added for emphasis].

The references to words such as “by hand,” “traditional,” and “non-mechanized” underly the idea that artisanal practices are considered “artisanal” because of the medium in which they exist, and the inherent values those media hold. Though a Shakespearian quote is essentially the same when written down, typed, or letterpress printed, the final product itself is different though the content is the same. The fascination with artisanal practices has less to do with nostalgia and tradition, and perhaps has more to do with making a distinction between “product,” and “craft.”

With increasing technological progress, today’s fast-paced society seems to put a cultural emphasis on efficiency. There is value in reducing costs (time, money, resources) to increase benefits (more time, more money, more resources). Efficiency in production allows one greater capacity to keep up with growing consumer use and demand. However, this is not to say that goods produced for the sake of efficacy lack quality or “high-quality ingredients.” Rather, the cultural value of efficiency and the media that embody that value tend to hold different meaning than, say, hand-made jewelry, hand-knit-clothing, organic produce, or hand-printed quotes. What we buy – and therefore value – when purchasing such “handmade” objects is not just the object, but the process. The time, thought, care, and labor put into such objects that give them another dimension of value and worth. It is this dimensional value in the conception of “artisanal” that deems some things “products,” and others “crafts.” Though both product and craft may carry the same content or idea, the value is not. If the medium of production is not the same, then the message is also not the same. Beyond nostalgia and elitism, there is a reason we pay more for organic plums, hand-made quilts, and sewn books.

Different Media, Different Messages

“Print is not one thing; it is, has been, and will be many. The relevant multiplicities are best glimpsed not by comparing media forms, but rather by attending specific structures and practices within which those forms have come to make sense at different times and among different social groups.” - Lisa Gitelman

The idea that “print” is not one thing, but multiple helps us understand letterpress printing beyond its current artisanal value. In performing the process itself, one could partake in the meaning of “print” itself within a particular medium. What was interesting about letterpress printing was the type of planning and thinking necessary to print the final product. Elements of spacing, typeface, and layout had to be approached differently in comparison to modern-day printing; the mental and physical process are drastically different. When mistakes were made when printing with the letterpress, much more labor was required to fix errors. The printing of one quote demanded a degree of patience, planning, and thought unique to the letterpress print process itself. What I enjoyed most about the process was the thinking tangibly during the process. Spacing was not a matter of hitting “spacebar,” “tab,” “enter,” or “return,” it was moreso a matter of thinking physically about width and length and how those two features would define and shape the overall printed piece as a whole. As Lynch describes in her article in the Atlantic, design is indeed “as much an act of spacing as an act of marking… typesetting is slow.” By partaking in the print process itself, I learned a lot about printing itself, and the different meanings it holds across media, across social groups, and across time.

While printing on a computer is “speedier,” or more efficient, there are certainly other benefits to letterpress printing. Having to put more thought into design and formatting creates greater appreciation and satisfaction with the final product. Perhaps the appeal of artisanal practices such as letterpress printing is due to features of intimacy, time, patience, thought, labor, and knowledge of language and printing that makes such processes more akin to being a hobby. The process of creating “artisanal” goods decentralizes efficiency and prioritizes time, thought, and quality. The leisurely affordance of letterpress printing today and other artisanal processes thus offers value and meaning that other processes otherwise may not. The desire to learn artisanal practices holds merit in that it is more than repeating traditional modes of production – it is learning, performing, and appreciating the value/message of a medium that is no longer in use, and no longer provided by other media processes.


The mention of “skilled trade” in the Oxford Dictionary definition of “artisan” captures an element of exclusivity some artisanal practices may have once held. Those who produced or practiced a certain craft had the knowledge and resources to perfect, perform, and sell their labor. Or rather, the construction of such labor as “skilled” and “specialized” emphasized knowledge, resources, mental or physical capabilities to exclude others from partaking in – and prospering from – such “artisanal” processes.

Emily Faithfull articulated this very idea when examining how gender discrimination excluded women from the trade of composition and print. It was argued that “the business [required] the application of a mechanical mind, and that the female mind is not mechanical; that is [was] a fatiguing, unhealthy trade, and that women, being physically weaker than men, would sooner sink under this fatigue and labor.” Faithfull sheds light on how the making of “print” as a practice arcane to women and the general public concentrated the value of printing to benefit a small few. The fear that female printers and compositors would reduce printing wages given reveals that printing was perhaps made out to be a “skilled trade” so that a portioned few could benefit from its inaccessibility and make a living from the practice. Printing was not widely taught as a process–though, it could have been. As Faithfull writes, “the difference between a good printer and a bad one, is rather in the quality of mind and he care applied to the work, than in the knowledge of the work itself.”

The distribution of knowledge in the realm of print today has allowed practices such as letterpress printing to gain popularity. Further, the de-emphasis on knowledge of the trade as the prime feature needed to print has permitted more people to partake in such “artisanal processes” to learn from their structure, meaning, and form.