Archives for category: Letterpress

I find these freakishly amazing. They are printed from electrotypes made from the original wood blocks, and come from Dahl & Sinnott, 308 Pearl Street, Hartford, Connecticut.

From Printing Art, Vol. 35, 1920

From Printing Art, Vol. 35, 1920

It is almost unbelievable that someone could cut this sort of detail in wood. (Click to enlarge the illustration so you can see the detail.)

See the recent post Wood engraving or woodcut.


from Chicago Tribune

Walker Rumble’s The Swifts: Printers in the Age of Typesetting Races (University of Virginia Press, 2003) is an odd publication. Its main focus is on the weird phenomenon of races between hand typesetters. (Rapid typesetters were apparently referred to a swifts.) These races were put on in the sort of place, commoner in the second half of the nineteenth century, now represented by Ripley’s Believe It or Not, or Madame Tussaud’s, and appear to have drawn large crowds. Betting on the speed of a hand typesetter had long been a feature of in-house work-time entertainment in print shops: this development pulled it out into a public forum and naturally did nothing to reduce the betting.

Speed of setting was obviously an important factor in the efficiency of a newspaper. Getting pages printed was no problem on their power presses, but you had to have type to print there: and there were limits to the number of people you could hire. Not only was there a limited number of journeymen out there, but training, all via apprenticeship, was controlled by the union. In a ten-hour day the average journeyman would set (and correct) about 7,000 ems, 700 an hour. At a rate of 1,500 ems an hour, which most compositors would achieve in spurts, their hand would be reaching into the typecase at a rate of 4,000 times per hour. Very fast workers might reach back and forth from case to stick seven or eight times every five seconds. William C. Barnes, one of the last of the champion racers before technology took over and hand setting was superseded, managed 2000 ems an hour in the heats for the 1886 national typesetting championship in Chicago. He would also set blindfold and with his type cases reversed (i.e. upper case below lower case).

The workers naturally had an interest in not allowing the speed in the composing room to get too high: 700 ems an hour was just fine by them. One of the workers’ beefs about the attempt to bring women into the business in the years following the Civil War was that they would work too fast, no doubt to indicate how viable an alternative workforce they were. This represented a delicate balancing act for the macho typesetting unions who needed to demonstrate that men were better, and yet keep work rates down (thus pay rates up). This tension could be partially resolved by these typesetting races which seemed to show that men really could set type faster than women. This was almost certainly not the case, but naturally head-to-head races were not arranged. A comp could easily claim that it wasn’t possible to sprint all day: their competitive speed bursts were never allowed to become the norm. Of course the union, and all its members also faced the looming challenge of machine typesetting, a challenge which overwhelmed them all in the end.

Public hand typesetting races were a short lived phenomenon. They couldn’t get going till printing became industrialized in the 1830s and 40s, so that there were large groups of comps who could compete with one another in in-house competitions, and the races couldn’t survive when hand setting was superseded by machines and the contestants all lost their jobs (or retrained). Thus the “sport” only lasted for about 15 to 20 years from around 1870 when the first public events were arranged.

This woodcut by Hans Burgkmair (1473-1531) carries the date 1510. Burgkmair is credited, along with Lucas Cranach, with inventing the chiaroscuro woodcut whereby a multicolor printed picture could be produced in multiple copies. This was basically an attempt to reproduce the technique of chiaroscuro drawing: drawings on a colored paper where ink was used to create shadow and white paint to create a dramatic highlight. Burgkmair’s “Lovers surprised by Death”, is the earliest chiaroscuro woodcut known. It was made from three wood blocks, printing in black, and two shades of red/brown ink. The highlights are left blank allowing the paper to create the contrast. Naturally careful registration was required when printing a chiaroscuro print. The detail below makes things a little clearer.

Chiaroscuro has always seemed a slippery term to me. It is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “The style of pictorial art in which only the light and shade, and not the various colours, are represented; black-and-white, or dark brown and white.” They suggest that that definition is now in fact obsolete, the meaning having generalized out to cover just the (usually dramatic) treatment of light and shade in any picture. I suspect my uncertainty about the word resulted from its being used in these two different ways. A painting by Georges de la Tour doesn’t really have much in common with Burgkmair’s print.

The video below accompanied an exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2014. Achim Gnann, from the Albertina Museum in Vienna gives a 5-minute history of the early development of the chiaroscuro woodcut.

If you don’t see a video here, click on the title of the post to view it in your browser. The YouTube video is a bit herky-jerky, but it is all there.

Atlas Obscura tells the story of Kevin Bradley’s cross-country haul to set up his Church of Type in Santa Monica. With the International Printing Museum there too LA looks like a place the typophile has to visit.

And this might just be the moment: The Great Los Angeles Wayzgoose is taking place from July 20th to 23rd. It is being hosted by the International Printing Museum in Carson. “The presentations will also have a special focus on the unique Los Angeles letterpress scene, from the bold and colorful Kevin Bradley and his Church of Type in Santa Monica, to Rebecca Chamlee, Otis College Lab Press, Art Center in Pasadena, The Bieler Press, and Kitty Maryatt of the Scripps College Press. Attendees will be encouraged to print, cast, create, and be inspired with the Printing Museum collections.” Roll up, roll up!

This copy of The Mill on the Floss, which cost me 2/9 (about 27 pence in today’s money, but worth a good bit more back in the sixties when I must have bought it second-hand in Cambridge) was originally published and printed by William Blackwood and Sons in Edinburgh at some time late in the 19th century. At that time publishers often didn’t bother to put any dates in their books, especially their cheaper editions; and this carries none. It promotes itself as “The Stereotype Edition” on its title page: I wonder what that said to the potential book buyer. Probably that it was an “affordable” edition. The series title page features a little drawing of Dorlecote Mill and has a totally spurious tissue overlay which looks like it’s there to protect said drawing. Spurious, because the illustration is in no need of protection, being as likely to be damaged as any of the rest of the type on that page, or any other, which was printed by letterpress from the advertised stereo plates. The tissue’s there to impress the potential buyer, who’s meant to think that that vignette of the mill was separately printed as a copperplate engraving, and is therefore delicate. The book also has six full page line illustrations (rather clunky ones) printed so as to look as if they were tipped in plates, i.e. with blank back, and not included in the book’s pagination.

The series list gives pricing for the pukka Cabinet Edition where each volume will cost you 5/-. (No discount if you bought all 24 volumes for £6 though.) I bet you got even more tissue overlays there. My book looks like it’s Crown Octavo too (it’s 5″ x 7⅜”) so they may have used the same paper on both editions. It’s stood the test of time pretty well.

A stereotype is a solid plate of type metal made from a mould of the original type. (It can also be referred to as a cliché.) One of the tell-tale signs of a stereo is its tendency to get damaged after repeated use. On the page shown below you can see along the left hand margin evidence of the plate’s having been slightly bashed, which has compressed the “h”, “w”, “c” and lower down the “d” and “a”.

You can see the hefty impression the stereo could be subjected to in the indentations on the back of the sheet. It’s called letterpress printing for a reason!

Stereotypes would be made for books which the publisher expected to print often and in longer runs. Standing type was an expense as well as being constantly at risk of pi-ing — dropping down into a heap of individual sorts. Until the development of lithography enabled publishers to print whatever they wanted whenever they wanted, the stereotype provided a means of evading resetting every time you ran out of stock.

See also Flong, a step on the way to making a stereotype.

It’s an odd book that Mill on the Floss. I remember the first time I read it wondering if I’d failed to notice that there was a second volume. It finishes so abruptly. It’s almost as if the author got fed up; maybe she’d missed her delivery deadline. Alternatively I image them shouting up “Hurry up, Mary Anne. Come on down to dinner.” and she saying to herself: “OK, OK. Let’s just drown ’em and get it done with. And then off downstairs for that mutton chop and tomato sauce”.

I’ve seen dead insects printed in books and other unidentifiable splodges. Here from The Collation is a picture of a piece of type which has fallen across the type page and been printed — in 1609.

STC 7470 copy 2. The groove is at the bottom of the foot of the type (upper left in the image), the nick on the side. Photograph by Caroline Duroselle-Melish.

Anything which falls onto the type, or in the case of offset lithography onto the plate or the blanket, can remain in place, pick up ink, and be immortalized in print. The press-minder is meant to notice this sort of thing, but even they are just human. Once they do discover such an error they are meant to discard the last few sheets printed on the assumption that several faulty impressions will have happened before they noticed, but sometimes they take out too few sheets.

The forme (form in US) is all the hot metal type, blocks (cuts), and furniture to be printed in one impression locked up after imposition in a chase ready to be moved onto the bed of the press.

This example is not too huge and is going to be printed 4 pages to view. Most book work was done 8 or 16 pages to view which made the formes immensely heavy and unwieldy. They would be wheeled from composing room to press room on metal trolleys constructed at the same height as the bed of the press, so that the forme could be slid into position upon arrival. (It looks like this one is being balanced on such trolley.)

In the early days of printing, when type was often scarce a compositor might set in forme order. In this picture, you are looking at, say, pages 7, 2, 6, and 3. So the comp might deal with those pages first, and then set pages 1, 8, 4, and 5 for the back-up of this sheet. After the first forme was printed the type could be distributed and be available for the comp’s next batch of pages. This procedure would call for accurate casting-off (or compromises on page length consistency).


When you’re in the middle of something, you obviously can’t see how it’ll all end up. We sort of knew that hot metal was looking a bit sick, but I don’t think any of us thought the disease was terminal. We tended to see hot metal as the norm: Monotype as the ideal and Linotype as an economic compromise on that ideal, used for newspapers. (Similarly we found it hard to see beyond letterpress printing as against offset lithography.) Photosetting was, in our mind, an inadequate effort to mimic the quality of Monotype setting with slightly better economics. We assumed the attempt was doomed to failure: after all the quality of a well-set Monotype job excellently printed by letterpress on a good paper was unambiguously good. What we didn’t recognize was that the excellent is always vulnerable to the acceptable when there are savings involved. We all thought, wrongly, that we were above that sort of crassness.

IMGP2164Here from the Deutsches Museum in Munich is the Intertype Fotosetter, in the 1960s the most used phototypesetting machine in the world. It looks rather like a Linotype hot-metal typecaster, which isn’t too surprising as it was just an adaptation of that very thing. In place of a pot of hot metal, it had an exposure unit which would create the image. The Linotype matrices, the “mats”, were adapted to contain a photographic negative rather than a real matrix, as you may see below. Justification might involve some letter spacing as well as word spacing — a big barrier to its use for book work.

Fotosetter (left), Linotype (right)








As you can tell from the video I posted recently, From Hot Metal to Cold Type (in which this machine briefly features: the photo of the mats comes from it) industry responses to the early moves to photo-typesetting were varied, somewhat Heath-Robinson-like, and rather panicky when viewed with the benefit of hindsight.

For a number of years hot metal typesetting and photosetting co-existed. There wasn’t a price differential: at least to the customer there wasn’t. If a printer had large sums invested in hot metal setting equipment he had no real option other than using it, even if that meant charging less per page than last year, and thus it went. Naturally however, when it came to reinvestment, the traffic was all in one direction. Gradually the price of typesetting went down and down and down — in the fifty years from 1965 to 2015 the price of typesetting went down by something like two thirds or three quarters, more if you factor in inflation.

In the early days phototypesetting worked by exposing light through a negative image of a character to place it on photosensitive paper or film. Then came a few months (!) when the image was created on a cathode ray tube and thus conveyed to a similar carrier. The biggest efficiency gain came however with the digitization of typesetting where the character was created as a series of raster lines (irregular around the edges if looked at under high magnification) which initially were output onto film or photosensitive paper, but eventually output directly to a printing plate, or now, via digital printing, directly onto the paper. Just saying it indicates how many steps, each involving workers, were thereby eliminated.

This is one of the saddest movies I’ve seen.

(If you get this post via email and don’t see a video here, please click on the title of the post to view in your browser.)

It is a re-training film made in the mid-sixties by the International Typographical Union. It is amazing how quickly the process moved on from this early response to technological change. None of what you see here survives in today’s print industry (including the union itself. Founded in 1852, with a membership of about 100,000 at the time this film was made, the ITU finally withered away in 1986 and merged in 1987 with the Communications Workers of America.)

The tone of the film is optimistically up-beat, showing the way forward into the new world. In fact these guys were facing the elimination of most of their jobs. The union had an interest is portraying a labor-heavy process: see the guy carry one plate into the pressroom, turn around and walk back. Despite its optimistic front, the union was clearly aware of the writing on the wall. The stiff-upper-lip dodging and weaving in the face of the inevitable make for an almost tragic tale. Manning levels have plummeted since then, and while a few senior workers can remember the old ways, the number who successfully retrained was not immense. What workers do today has little connection with either the old, old ways shown at the start of the video or the initial responses to the new technology which follow.

The commentator proudly proclaims: “Printing in its many forms is the handmaiden of civilization and of progress . . . Since the days of Gutenberg the typesetter, in a real sense, has been the engineer of civilization . . . The printer has led mankind by the hand, so to speak, into the light of modern society.” Printing isn’t the only trade that has lost its pride. When it was a matter of coaxing huge piles of metal into doing ridiculously detailed things, the manual workers who accomplished this could bask in the romance of the struggle successfully won. Now there’s not too much pride to be taken in watching a computerized control system turn your lathe, grind your lens, cast your ingot, weave your cloth and so on. No wonder unhappy workers (or ex-workers) have become a troubled political force. We have moved our economics beyond manual work, but need still to come up with a psychological story transforming idle hands into — what? Proud consumers? Jolly vacationers? Self-improvement mavens? Life-time students? What about avid readers?

If we’d never had “these dark Satanic Mills” I think we wouldn’t have developed this stultifying hang-up about the nobility of work. We have bought this bill of goods, pushed at us as a means of distracting us from the realization that working in a mill was a nightmare, but a nightmare rather better than starvation. There’s no inherent nobility in being a wage-slave. Wake up guys — you’ve nothing to lose but your chains! Let’s divorce income from work by getting a universal basic income scheme going so that nobody has to be seen as “redundant” or “unemployed” — the village stocks of the modern day. People who wanted to keep working could do so. The underlying problem of automation is that robots are not workers, they are capital goods, and their arrival has accompanied and will only accelerate a switch from the proportion of the work product moving from labor to capital. Those who choose to work should become shareholders rather than salaried staff. If you don’t have to feel exploited, who knows how many people would choose to keep working.

Vimeo has lots of films generated as part of the process of putting together Linotype: The Film.

Here’s another video. The first half of the almost seven minute film is given over to inking the type and the second half to pulling two impressions to print one side of a two-page spread. You can see how dreams of automation would have played in the minds of workers who’d have had plenty of time to think of relief.

See also Gutenberg Fry-up.