600 Years of Printing History — The History Behind the Craft of Letterpress Printing —
from Gutenburg to Polymer Plates
In the mid-fifteenth century Johannes Gutenberg is said to have invented the moveable type printing press. He began with his own version of wood block printing, then progressed from wood type to metal type in order to achieve the desired print clarity. It was Gutenburg's "screw press" or hand press that was used to print 180 copies of the Bible. At 1,282 pages, it took he and his staff of 20 almost 3 years to complete. 48 copies remain intact today.
Gutenberg's press is considered to be the first instance of mass communication, after which letterpress printing became the primary method of printing and distributing information. This monumental achievement was incredibly instrumental in allowing the common people access to the printed word, thus encouraging the spread of information and ideas.
In 1473, the first English book was printed by William Caxton in Bruges, Belgium. Caxton's standardization of English vocabulary and his press were two chief contributing factors to the spread of the English language, as well as its inflection and syntax.
Around 1720, William Caslon pioneered the Caslon Foundry in England. His typefaces were inspired by Dutch Baroque type, and due to their distinct legibility, they became popular and widely used among printers of the day. Caslon's typefaces were not only used in the first printed version of the US Declaration of Independence, but many of them remain widely used today.
Influenced by Caslon's type, John Baskerville created several typefaces of his own. He is also credited with significant advancements in printing, paper and ink production. His paper provided a smoother whiter surface, while his new style of typography added wide margins and leading between lines of type to assist with legibility and general aesthetics.
Until the 19th century, gutenberg's press remained relatively unchanged. Letterpress printing was overtaken commercially by offset printing in the 1950's and remained in the background for the next 40 years.
In the 1980's, Photopolymer plates emerged and provided the perfect platform for the revival of letterpress printing. The ability to transfer a photo negative to the printing plate revolutionized the process. Larger print runs were now possible and while some printers still utilize the individual character method of typesetting and printing, many have embraced the new digital method. This new technique reintroduced letterpress printing in a whole new light, making way for new design possibilities, encouraging a newfound popularity of the medium, and allowing for style trends to emerge throughout the design community.
The contemporary letterpress community is comprised of not only highly skilled printers, but artisans. These craftsmen and women continually use the tactile nature of letterpress to create remarkable work with impeccable artistry.
Decades and even centuries ago, the kiss, or transfer of ink to paper, was meant to be just enough of a touch to get the ink onto the paper. If a printer left an impression, he or she was considered a poor printer. Today, however, the kiss has become more of a bite. The deep impression made possible with letterpress printing has become indicative of the medium, and is sought after by the printers and patrons alike.
This advent of polymer plates in letterpress printing created an opportunity in the realm of paper production. At the time, few stocks existed that could express the detailed impression from polymer plates–most European papers were expensive, and most American papers couldn't achieve the deep impact that was desired by many printers and designers.
By 2005, there was increasing demand for a beautiful, thick, cushy, and affordable paper that would work well with modern polymer plates. Thus, the desire for a deep impression inspired a new line of papers. Crane & Co. introduced Lettra, a paper that was designed specifically for letterpress. Thick toothy sheets with a crisp surface changed the face of paper in the world of letterpress printing. This new stock allowed polymer plates to showcase the tactile and dimensional effect of the medium, and created that depth and shadowing effect that only letterpress can produce.
Although printing technology has evolved over the years, the main focus of letterpress remains on the delivery of ink to paper and the communication of ideas. The process may have changed somewhat, but passion for the craft and meticulous attention to detail remain paramount. Today, as seen here in our letterpress community, the craft remains alive and well.