The Resurgence of Letterpress

Lab / Fieldbook 6

“The Resurgence of Letterpress”

Having spent some time working with cold metal type, what do you make of its current revival? Why are people—and in particular, younger people—drawn to this method of making texts that is certainly slower than hitting “print” in a word processor? Is it all just nostalgia, or is there something else going on?

I think working with letterpress is a lot more personal and intimate. It helped me understand the text more. The text my group and I put was:

“before I am lost,
hell must open like a dead rose
for the dead to pass.”

I could have just copied and pasted that from the Internet into any text-editing software, then just printed that. But, we “created” every aspect of the poem, including all the letters, punctuation, spaces, and illustration. We also had to make sure the whole thing was flushed, so it wouldn’t crumble to pieces when we transported it to the ink machine. This process thus helped me think about each word as I picked the letters, put it in the composing stick, then transferring those to the frames. Our group’s strategy was to run the passage through a website that told us how many of each letter there was. We then split up the letters and picked how many the website said we needed. It was a laborious process, and it was even more laborious trying to figure out how to make the whole thing flushed. We probably spent the most time trying to figure out what to put in the gaps. We used a combination of spacers and bars to fill in those gaps. Even though it took a long time, I was glad that I was getting a hands-on experience with the text. It was another way to understand it, to “feel” it in a way that was different from the textual analysis I am so accustomed to doing. Now, I realize that writers use certain words not only for their meanings, but also due to the spaces and pauses in between each word, line, and paragraph / stanza. This is especially true of poetry, because poetry, though textual, has a visual element as well. It matters how the poem looks on paper, and thus being cognizant of each letter, of each space, and of each line break helped me understand the author’s intentions.


For example, when I first read the poem, I wondered why there was a line break between “rose” and “for.” It was part of one phase, “hell must open like a dead rose for the dead to pass.” I learned that one reason was to keep the number of syllables the same as it was in the first line, “before I am lost.” I learned this as I said each word out while I was putting them into the composing stick. Another reason was that “hell must open like a dead rose” and “for the dead to pass,” while part of one phrase, were meant to emphasize different things. “Hell must open like a dead rose” provided us with some imagery. It was confusing, but it was supposed to be. Then, “for the dead to pass” tied back into the first line in that “for the dead to pass” was the condition which would lead the subject to get lost. The poet deliberately chose to put the line break there to emphasize through both visual (reading it) and auditory (reading it out loud) cues. Finally, we added a rose woodblock, and it printed some beautiful roses and leaves onto our poem. People said that the rose was a wonderful touch to the poem. My group members and I did a victory jig when we found the rose woodblock after several minutes of hard searching. We just knew it would complete our text and give it detail. While it was not text, it was still acted in the same way both physically (being printed) and added to the experience readers got when they read over the poem. The audience would also know the text would be about a rose, as their eyes would be drawn to it before they even read the lines.

Thus, what I would say from all of this is that I really did understand the text better by being really conscientious about the physicality of it. It was a nice hands-on way of engaging with the text, instead of solely doing a textual analysis. I got to “feel” the text and “breathe” it. And frankly, something about the fact that I made the whole thing from scratch made me proud of the result. I hung it up in my room with the ones my friends in other groups gave me, because I’m not only proud of my work, but I’m also proud of the new and deeper understanding I have of the text.

In what ways do the current letterpress enthusiasm line up with history, and how does it depart—and what do these overlaps and departures tell us about our own historical moment?

I know that the first book Johann Gutenberg, the inventor of the printing press, printed was none other than the Bible. The Bible remains one of the most important texts ever in history. I know that in Gutenberg’s era and setting, religion, particularly Catholicism, dominated many aspects of life in Europe. Germany was no exception– in fact, that was there the Protestant Reformation was born, due to people going against the Catholic Church’s controlling and often dishonest ways. So, it makes sense why Gutenberg printed the Bible first. To him, it only made sense that the Bible would receive the everlasting honor of being the first text that was ever printed. I did some more research and found that while many of the first printed books were the popular religious texts of the medieval period, many classical Greek and Roman texts were also printed. It was, after all, the Renaissance in Europe. These classical texts, in addition to the religious texts, became more accessible to the public. This also meant that texts were no longer all in Latin, because only scholars and other high-ranking people of society knew Latin. Before 1500, the majority of books were in Latin, but that figure quickly reversed in the years following 1500. English and Italian texts, including Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Dante’s Divine Comedy. As a response to this, the Catholic Church forbid the Bible to be published in any language that wasn’t Latin. It became increasingly hard for them to censor other material though, since they no longer had to painstakingly hand copied. Finally, the aforementioned Protestant Reformation started after the invention of the printig press. German Martin Luther insisted that Christians be able to read the Bible in their own language. The printing press helped to publish more copies of the Bible in other languages. This also helped spread the Reformation itself, and eventually ended the hold of the Catholic Church over much of northern Europe.

gutenberg Bible

Today, there is no such need for printing presses to disseminate information. It’s not like the only other option is for scribes to hand-copy everything. We live in the age of the internet, where sharing of information and communication is instant. We have all sorts of cloud services to store and edit information, in addition to platforms such as social media on which to share information with. College students spend hours looking for the free PDF versions of hundred-dollar textbooks, and professors almost always assign readings on BlackBoard. So, why all this new craze about letterpress texts? Aside from the reasons I mentioned above (it’s another way for us to understand and connect to the text, it’s something we’re proud of because we made it using our hands), our reasons for liking letterpresses are totally different from why people were excited about the printing press when it was first invented. People back then were in dire need of it, while to us, it is a special activity. Most people have probably never used a letterpress, which adds to its novelty. So, I would say we share the enthusiasm with the people back then in that we’re excited about this different way to print something. They relied on hand printing from scribes, and we rely on being able to print from anywhere on campus. Even the days of hooking up printers to computers are long gone. It’s ironic that the people back then marvelled at the newness of the printing press and the practical functions it would serve, while we enjoy it from a “throwback” and vintage perspective. They were excited because it was new and cool, and because could forsee that it could really change history and society, while we mostly care because letterpresses are cool. I haven’t had the time yet, but I plan to post a picture of my letterpressed poem on Instagram, and I know it will rack up a lot of attention because people just find it cool.

invitation So many wedding invitations and other fancy printed things are now letterpressed. And people say, “Oh, what a lovely invitation.” Every. Single. Time. Before I used the letterpress, I thought it would be cool due to how hands-on and retro it was, but I now have the added knowledge of hand-printing allowing me to feel every aspect of the piece more. These overlaps and departures from the feelings people way back then reveals that many of us thirst for something else in this information dense world. The age of the Internet has come with both advantages and disadvantages, and one disadvantage is that we are choked with the responsibility of having to know so much information. So, like the prompt suggests, part of our craze for letterpress is to connect with older times, when priting was much more intentional, and when information was still manageable. By intentional, I mean that people took care to make sure everything had a reason for being so. Why they used a certain font, why they used a certain size, etc. And that seems awfully attractive to us. Something about the limitedness of letterpress makes it fun. I felt like I was solving a puzzle as my group and I were trying to figure out how to get the whole text to be flushed. Though it was challenging, it was so much fun, and everyone outside of class said they were very jealous that my assignment was to use a genuine printing press. People kept asking me if I could make them another postcard, so I just told them to sign up for the class. While I had fun making it, I don’t think I want to make a whole new thing, especially if it isn’t for an assignment. It was still exhausting and time consuming. I think, for now, I’ll appreciate from a distance, and just muse on it on here. We have departed from needing letterpresses, unlike those people enthused about it in the past, and I think I’ve had my fill of using the letterpress for now.