Lab 6: Pulling the Press

Back to the Press

There’s something nostalgic about receiving a long-hand letter. Opening an envelope with a stamp in the top right corner, return address in the left. Opening the seal and revealing a perfect sheet of paper with neat handwriting symmetrically printed across a page. Not every line exactly justified because that’s not how people write but rather how computers justify text. Receiving that letter brings a warm feeling. Someone took the time to sit down with a pen and meticulously formulate letters into words instead of just mindlessly punching keys. The writer’s personality comes through their handwriting and it’s as if you can hear their voice as you read their words and see their font. Suddenly, artistry has made its way back into communication.

I see letterpress printing in the same light – bringing art back to communication. Hand-pressed post cards, wedding invitations, and greeting cards are no longer things of the past. In fact, there is a growing market for the industry and hand-pressed materials are highly sought after. This is particularly true in the younger generation and this too, has to do with our fascination for art and different art forms. This brings me seamlessly to similarities and differences between letterpress printing in the 1400’s and letterpress printing today.

Then and Now

When it was first invented, letterpress printing was an innovative, incredibly efficient way to distribute text very quickly. No longer were scribes required to copy every letter of every page that wanted to be re-printed. Now, there was a machine that could print hundreds of identical pages in minutes once the type was set. Fast forward almost 600 years - we’ve figured out some more effective, efficient ways to accomplish the same task in an unimaginably short amount of time. No need to worry about formatting up front, no manual labor required in “setting” or “printing” type, just a couple machines and no time at all. So why this upsurge in reverting back to letterpress printing? I talked about this in an earlier lab and alluded to it here - with the loss of the printing press, we lost the art studio. Today, we’re bringing it back. People don’t want hand-pressed wedding invitations because it’s the most efficient way to print wedding invitations. No, people enjoy the look of firmly pressed indented paper, ink that needs to dry, the undeniable effort that went into printing each individual invitation. It’s an artistic appeal as opposed to a practical one… we have ‘command P’ for that.

There are a number of differences between letter-press printing today verse 600 years ago. Firstly, in its heyday, printers never wanted to leave an indentation of the type in the paper. Today, craftsman crank down on letter presses, making sure you can essentially see the image or read the text through the back of the paper because its been pressed so hard. In Gutenberg’s time, this would have been a sign of very bad technique. Secondly, today we can print in basically any color imaginable. Ink is configured into the perfect shade on a computer, then “mixed” on a computer much like cans of paint at Home Depot. So the colors of print projects today are up to the buyers imagination. Thirdly, and most distinctly different based on my research, is the concept of “setting” type. Compositors are largely people of the past. There are some, don’t get me wrong, but most companies today known to offer letterpress printing are not sitting there with type cases and spacers. The setting process has been largely digitized. This has also led to much more freedom in fonts, editing, pictures, and designs, and “running out of sorts” is seldom a problem. This letterpress menu shows all three differences mentioned above: the harsh indentations, the freedom in ink color, and the difficult designs that would have been impossible in Gutenberg’s time. But the artistic, aesthetic appeal still remains. This has led to the timeless, agelessness of letterpress printing.