Archives for category: Letterpress

Ulrich Pinder’s 1506 Epiphanie Medicorum, Folger Library

Atlas Obscura shows a sample of what they refer to as early color-printing, though they do eventually admit towards the end that the color wasn’t printed. The original source, the Folger Library where this book is part of an exhibition, “Beyond Words: Book Illustration in the Age of Shakespeare” which will run till June 3rd, is less coy, making clear the color was added by hand after printing in black only, and pointing out that the lack of distinction between the different colors would make the chart less than perfectly useful for urinalysis. That different colorists might use different shades in coloring different copies would also detract from the chart’s value in interpretation.

Printing color as good as is required by this sort of urine comparison chart could not be attempted until the invention of the halftone process in the mid nineteenth century. In theory you could have mixed up twenty different colors of ink and printed each flat color separately — except of course for the fact that this would be hopelessly expensive, thus vanishingly unusual. Only a king among physicians might have a purse large enough.

Diagnosis by urinalysis is of course something we’re all familiar with as customers. It has a long history. Hippocrates believed in its diagnostic power, and we have a text from 100BC in Sanskrit discussing the technique. I had always assumed the analysis was totally chemical but it seems that color charts are still involved. It looks a bit like that old litmus test you remember from school.


Times Roman or Times New Roman? One assumes they are different, but the reason we have these two names is merely the fact that when the face was cut for the Linotype soon after Monotype had introduced it as Times New Roman in 1932, Linotype named their version Times Roman tout court. Perhaps the name change was intended to distinguish it from the Monotype version despite the fact that, to the non-specialist eye, it looked more or less identical. The typeface which The Times (of London) used before that, what we might now call Times Old Roman, was in fact Monotype Modern, cut in 1908.

Times New Roman

The distinction in nomenclature survives the passing of hot metal typesetting: both appear as options on the Mac — Times Roman coming from the Linotype Corporation and Times New Roman from Monotype. There are differences between the two faces, but they are slight. Here from TypeTalk at CreativePro is an illustration showing some of the differences — Times Roman at the top; Times New Roman below. Basically you can see that the counter of the cap P differs, and Times Roman has pointy bits at the top of the shafts of letters, while they have been leveled off in Times New Roman on the lower line.

The creation of Times New Roman came about as the result of an insult. Allegedly when the Monotype Company was invited in 1929 to advertise in The Times’ Printing Supplement, Stanley Morison, who was Monotype’s typographical consultant, replied that he’d rather pay them £1,000 not to set an ad for them as The Times’ typographic standards were so low. Ironically Morison, who had started his working life as a bank clerk, had first become interested in type and printing when reading The Times’ previous Printing Supplement in 1912, and this next supplement got him the job of redesigning The Times, whose management immediately picked up the gauntlet.

Aesthetically not altogether lacking, the face was, it should be remembered made for the functional purpose of jamming as much text into as small a space as possible, and in this it succeeded. Morison made drawings which he then gave to Victor Lardent of The Times who translated them to reproduction standard. Morison used a design by Christophe Plantin (1520-89) as his inspiration, though there are elements of Perpetua and Baskerville in its make up. It took till 1932 for the work to be completed.

Don’t bother checking. The Times no longer uses Times New Roman. According to Wikipedia they stopped using in 1972 and replaced it with Times Europa, then Times Roman took over in 1982, Times Millennium in 1991, Times Classic in 2001, and Times Modern in 2006. Times Roman, older or newer is of course still widely used.

Everybody knows, don’t they, that Times New Roman was designed by Stanley Morison? Surprise, surprise, the typeface design was for The Times newspaper, and was part of a comprehensive face-lift that took several years to implement fully.

Morison was, beyond that, a remarkable man. He was born in 1889 and brought up in north London, a city he always expressed himself reluctant to leave. He didn’t attend university but managed to become formidably learned. He was described as the most intelligent man in Europe by his friend R. M. Barrington-Ward, editor of The Times. Typographical consultant to The Times, he was at one point almost dragooned into becoming its editor. He did serve as editor of The Times Literary Supplement from 1945 to 1948. He was a consultant to the Monotype Corporation where he helped usher in many classic typefaces, refusing ever to compromise quality.  He was also a consultant to Cambridge University Press, joining there with Walter Lewis, the University Printer, to launch and consolidate the mid-century revolution in the design and printing of books.

Morison, who converted to Roman Catholicism at the age of nineteen, always wore black suits which he’d obtain from an ecclesiastical outfitter. Lord Beaverbrook, a friend, alleged that the black hat he always wore was one size too small for his head. Morison was a life-long Marxist, and was a conscientious objector in World War I, spending time in jail in consequence. In the Second World War his Regent’s Park flat was bombed out with the loss of immense amounts of early print and manuscript evidence, but he couldn’t get there for hours as he was on the roof of Barrington-Ward’s house a few doors down putting out fires from another bomb. On more than one occasion he declined to be knighted.

He promoted a clean, uncluttered design scheme. His First Principles of Typography amounts to a manual for creating a book layout using one typeface. “The primary claim of printing is not to be an art, but to be the most responsible of our social, industrial and intellectual mechanisms; it must, like a transport system, be most disciplined, most rational.” The transport simile is characteristic: Morison was a wild fan of railway trains, and once rode to Edinburgh on the footplate of “The Flying Scotsman”. Perhaps more clearly he writes in First Principles “Typography is the efficient means to an essentially utilitarian and only accidentally aesthetic end, for enjoyment of patterns is rarely the reader’s chief aim . . . Even dullness and monotony in the typesetting are far less vicious to a reader than typographical eccentricity or pleasantry.” Many today would benefit from this advice.

As well as his work on book design and the history and design of typefaces, Morison was expert in the history of letter forms, manuscript hands, and ecclesiastical printing. He edited and wrote much of the four-volume History of The Times (1935-52). Towards the end of his life he was a member of the board of editors of Encyclopedia Britannica.

In his biography Stanley Morison Nicolas Barker writes “Morison found typography without organized history or principles: he left it with both, and in addition a substantial body of work exemplifying them. The future is unlikely to dispute the size of this achievement.” He was direct, and often outspoken. Barker compares him in this to Samuel Johnson. Johnson I fear is the English author I’d come closest to wanting to punch on the nose — so portentously opinionated; so irritatingly often correct.* However, I started working at Cambridge University Press a couple of years before Morison’s death in 1967 so naturally grew up uttering his name with awed respect.


* D. H. Lawrence runs him a close second. Might there be a lit. crit. genre abirthing here? Authors one feels violent toward?

Here, via the SHARP listserv, is an account of some of the props used in making this film. The information is provided by Dan Franklin of The Two Sisters Press in Belleville Illinois.

Davin Kuntze of the Woodside Press in Brooklyn had this to say on the Letpress list in November 2017:

Earlier this year, I was approached to create a couple props for an upcoming major motion picture. The item in question was a front-page lockup of the Washington Post from 1971 just how they would have created it back then. With a lot of help and advice from a few experts (namely, Frank Romano at the Museum of Printing and John Christensen from Firefly Press), I pretty much managed to it pull it off with as much authenticity as I was able. I cut a few corners, mainly with the banner information, but everything else was done with a sharp eye to making it as true to an original as possible.
The creation of these props led to a three-day shoot here in our shop where we were decked out to look like an early seventies composing room at a major newspaper, smoking pipes and high-waisted pants included. They shot the up-close and personal operation of our Blue Streak Comet and Model 31 as beautifully as I’ve had the pleasure of seeing on film (and they were shooting onto actual film).
While I’m not allowed to share photos of the two front-page lockups I created just yet, the trailer just landed yesterday and, much to my surprise and enjoyment, a number of the inserts from our shop were used. Starting at about the 2-minute mark, you can catch brief glimpses of my hands, John Christensen’s hands, some mats spelling out a dramatic phrase and the distribution mechanism.


Then, Davin posted this terrific story on Jan. 16:

Marc, a good friend of mine who plays one of the Linotype operators in the film, is set up in front of the Comet on the second day so I wasn’t in the background again and to give the illusion of a much larger composing department than we actually have. An hour or two into the shoot, and he’s plonking away like he knows what he’s doing, but we had the sword in the magazine and the plunger disconnected so there wouldn’t be any malfunctions during an otherwise good take.

They set up the next shot, and from the back I hear “Ok. Now we need to have the Linotypes casting for the next scene.”
Marc looks over at me, wide-eyed.
Now, Marc has been around the shop for years and seen the machines in operation, but has never actually RUN a Linotype. I walk over and give him a two-minute crash course. Then I get off screen and give him the thumbs up. So Marc has to run a Linotype for the very first time with Steven Spielberg watching closely on the monitors and Meryl Streep standing behind him with her hand on his shoulder talking to Tom Hanks about newspapers and making history and stuff. He totally pulled it off, much to everyone’s relief. While cleaning up a couple days later, we find line after identical line, like Jack Torrance (from The Shining) had been running one of the machines. I guess Marc just found something he could touch type quickly and stuck to that.
Other people you might catch in the Linotype scenes who some of you may know are John Kristensen (from Firefly Press) and Andy Birsh (the owner of Woodside Press). Behind the scenes, we had Rich Hopkins, who cast the large Bodoni we used as as a stand-in for the handset “Post-doni” headline type. Finally, Frank Romano provided invaluable historical information as well as the two large chases for the front pages, the turtles and some other odds and ends that ended up as set dressing. It probably wouldn’t have happened without Frank’s input and assistance or Rich Hopkin’s beautiful type.

The July 2, 1978 issue of the NYT was the last set on Linotypes.

In 2016, there was a delightful story in the NYT about Rudolph Stocker, who worked at the NYT for 50 years:

The trouble with the earliest typesetting machines was always the distribution difficulty (though justification also presented persistent problems). In a letterpress print shop distribution didn’t mean what we think it means today. To distribute type is to take the individual bits of type (sorts) after they’ve been used for printing and put them back into the place they had started out from so that they could be reused for the next pages waiting to be typeset. In a hand setting world this mean distributing the sorts into the type case, putting each individual sort into the appropriate box in the case, minding your ps and qs of course, so that the compositor could start work on the new copy. Distribution would tend to be done first thing in the morning by the apprentice who had to get in early to break up the type pages which had been printed on the previous afternoon and get the individual sorts back to the starting line.

Early inventions tended to founder on this problem rather than on the easier task of getting the right sort to respond to a keystroke and drop into the right position. Type was something a printer valued. It would be obtained, at a cost, from a separate business, the type foundery, and was to that extent a “given”, representing part of the printer’s capital investment. Not until Mergenthaler and Lanston figured out that the problem could just be circumvented by recasting type every time you needed a character, was machine typesetting made truly cost effective. However the Thorne machine came close to solving the problem and was quite successful with between 1,500 and 2,000 machines produced. It traded from 1880 till about the end of World War I under the names of Thorne, Simplex and Unitype.

The Thorne Typesetting and Distribution Machine used that tower to hold all the little bits of type in 90 channels where they could drop down for use in the new setting. The tower consists of two separate parts. The type for distribution would be loaded into the top, rotating part, face out, and sent to the appropriate channel in the lower part by using a series of nicks on the side of the type which distinguished every sort from every other one. Distribution could be continuous with the keyboard operator working away at the same time. After a line was set it had to be justified by a second operator, by the hand insertion of spaces and hyphens. This inefficiency was partially “justified” by suggesting that the justifier served as a sort of extra proofreader.

The Thorne Typesetting and Distribution Machine is covered well at Circuitous Root, which carries many illustrations and much detail, including a link to a promotional booklet available at the Internet Archive. This booklet includes samples of the typefaces available on the Thorne, as well as testimonials from satisfied customers, including this revealing table of output and cost from APA.

The emphasis placed in the Note on the absence of heads and signatures is there to point up the efficiency even more starkly. Obviously setting a head like, say “Chapter I” would give you a quicker, easier line than the full lines of text which would follow.


The Collection is a nice little movie about a collection of 60,000 cuts/blocks for newspaper movie adverts. The story about it appears at Atlas Obscura. You can watch the film here — it’s only 11 minutes long.

(If you don’t see the Vimeo video here, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.)

I guess it’s good that there are lots of people who are movie enthusiasts: there’d be no market for a collection of old blocks from say Mackays of Chatham or The Cambridge Evening News. In the olden days all printed illustrations used to require this sort of physical object in order for them to be printed — with a raised area to pick up the ink, and recessed areas to “print” white. Most would naturally be rather uncollectible, even if printers had gone to the bother of saving them.

I’m not sure why these would all have ended up at the storage room of their originator, KB Typesetting of Omaha, Nebraska. After all, in order to print from them, the local newspapers around the country would have needed to have the blocks on hand. I guess the blocks would have been mailed out to all the printers from this central address: very few letterpress printers had their own engraving set-up. Can they have been required to return the block after completing printing? I doubt it. I assume that the ones held in inventory were there for the odd late rush order.

If you want to see how such a block was made, please look at the amazing videos at my earlier post, Engraving a halftone block. The functions carried out in the first of these videos would almost certainly have taken place at the movie studio. KB’s involvement would have started at the beginning of the second video with receipt of finished art or negatives from the studio.

Erik Kwakkel sends a tweet linking to this Leiden blog post, about a sheet they found which shows evidence of having been used centuries later as a frisket to print characters in red. You can see the little windows which have been cut into the sheet which would be interposed between the paper (already printed with black) and the type. The full width of the type printed in red can be seen overprinting the original manuscript text and illustration on the frisket sheet. Where the little windows were cut the red ink would get through and print on the sheet being pulled. For the first pass through the press (or second if the red was printed first which actually seems more likely) all this type would have been inked in black. I’m not sure how, when printing the black they’d prevent its printing where the red was ultimately to go. There’s no way to cut a frisket with holes all over except in the few spots where red was required. Maybe they’d glue little patches over these characters after inking — though I’ve no idea how they’d prevent such slips falling off or moving and they’d have to do that after every inking which sounds ludicrously labor-intensive, even in times of cheap labor. Setting up two versions of type would be prohibitively expensive at a time when type was cast by hand and a printer’s holdings would be kept to a minimum. Really I think they’d have had to print the red first, using this kind of frisket, and then remove these bits of “red” type and replace them by quad spaces;* that way you could avoid having to reinsert these characters afterwards for the red printing.

This example, from a School of Advanced Study, University of London study of early modern frisket sheets, looks like the red ink was applied as a solid block, which would be hard to imagine unless it were being used in the inking phase rather than when the impression was pulled. Probably it just looks like this because so many impressions were run that slight variations in registration built up to fill in all the gaps between the type.


* Quad spaces are less  tall than the type, so that when ink is rolled across the type none of it adheres to the quads, leaving the area they occupy blank on the printed sheet. You can see them rather well in this picture from Paper Wren Press.

There was a moment when this machine made it look like letterpress printing might survive into the 21st century — but the moment passed and as far as I know no belt presses remain in the UK or USA. Maybe there’s still one in some far-flung corner of the world.

Photo: Kerley Ink

You took your copy, shot it, and used the negs to produce a flexible photopolymer plate carrying a raised image of every page. These plates were mounted on two long belts. You can just make the belts out beneath the rollers in this picture. One revolution of a belt would print one side of a book. The web of paper would then pass through to the second belt which would print the other side of the book. The roll of paper was then slit into ribbons which were cut into individual page pairs which were gathered in a sort of waterwheel-like device which would flip on after it contained a complete book, presenting the next pocket ready to collect the next book. An elegantly simple mechanical solution which got you straight, in one pass through the press, to a book block ready to be perfect bound.

Because of the need to recreate the image in polymer, the Cameron belt press tended to swell the image. Thus copy submitted in normal type would tend to print fatter, looking almost semi-bold, and any halftone work needed to be originated with a coarser screen than the 133 line screen favored for most book work. Still the press worked well for a certain category of book. Its problem was that that category wasn’t large enough to sustain the investment needed to install and operate the equipment. The arrival of quick-makeready narrow-web offset presses doomed the belt press.

This film, made almost unbelievably by school children, tells the story of the end of Fleet Street, telling you along the way what it was like there before the Murdoch-alypse.

If you don’t see a video here, click on the title of the post in order to view it in your browser.

The film tells the story (from one side it’s true) of the brutal switchover from letterpress to computers and offset in the British print industry. As one of the casualties says: “The benefits of new technology go to those who own it, not those who work it.” It’s hard not be get angry about it — inevitable as such change is. The film’s website is here.

The title, Banging out, derives from the celebration marking the end of your 6-year apprenticeship. The first part of the movie is about apprenticeship. Technological change has made apprenticeship less important — the machines now just know stuff which in the olden days had to be learnt by workers: it’s all been programmed in. The pride to be found carrying out a complex and back-breaking task with colleagues who all knew the same vast amount that you did, is no longer a feature of our work. Watch the film for the touching story of the bonds of comradeship which marked the old industry. It is 52 minutes long, but it is good.

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.