It must have been a word everyone knew in 1933 when the song “Easter Parade” featured in “As Thousands Cheer” on Broadway. The song is of course better known from the eponymous 1948 film with Fred Astaire and Judy Garland.

The photographers — will snap us
And you’ll find that you’re
In the rotogravure.


Since 1933, partly as a result of advances in web-fed offset, newspaper color supplements and magazines have moved away from gravure printing. The excellence of the color reproduction turns out (for publishers) not to be worth the cost of engraving four gravure cylinders with pits to hold the cyan, magenta, yellow and black inks. As you can see from the illustration above, the ink covers the entire cylinder which then rotates and is cleaned off by the doctor blade* which leaves ink only in the pits — the deeper the pit the more ink — and none on the surface, before traveling on to meet the paper. See the section on Intaglio printing in my earlier post Printing methods, where there’s a video of hand printing by intaglio.

Photo: AJS Labels

In ABC for book collectors John Carter forthrightly describes gravure as “The finest of reproductive printing processes” Gravure “evolved in the second half of the 19th century. It involved the creation of an intaglio ground on a copper plate, either by a combination of hand-etching and engraving, or the similar treatment of an image projected on to the late photographically (photogravure). The process was mechanised with copper-faced cylinders instead of plates in the 20th century. To a publisher the presence of gravure plates was a mark of distinction, to be commercially advertised.”

I had assumed the “roto” part of the name referred to the fact that the gravure plate is curved around a roller, but the Oxford English Dictionary says the word probably was picked up from the name of the Rotogravur Deutsche Tiefdruck GmbH (Berlin), said to be derived from the names of the two companies out of which it was formed in 1911: Rotophot GmbH (Berlin) and Deutsche Photogravur AG (Siegburg).

Just to knock my roller idea on the head they say: “The form rotagravure (compare quot. 1919 at sense 1) reflects a reinterpretation of the first element of the word as showing classical Latin rota wheel, roller (see rota n.).” I still bet that, whatever the Latin tells us, RotoPhot got its name from these rollers. Modern printers, in contrast to their 15th century predecessors, are not required to be Latinists.

The process of printing etchings from rotating cylinders was developed by the Austrian-Czech artist and printer K. Klič in Lancaster in the 1890s (originally for printing textiles), but he did not patent his invention, and apparently did not use the word. A related process (invented by E. Mertens) was later popularized by the German company discussed above, but Klič is still frequently credited with the invention of rotogravure.

Rotogravure (or any kind of gravure) is far too expensive to be used for book and publications nowadays. It is now confined to printing labels for cans of vegetables: where color consistency from one can to another is absolutely vital, and the print runs are immense.


* Doctor blade may originate with dux, leader (via ductor) rather than with doctor, teacher.