Archives for category: Letterpress

This Vimeo video — a little odd perhaps, but thought-provoking, takes you on a tour through some modern approaches to graphic design. The openness of New York encourages experimentation, the connective thread throughout this international journey from the theory of glitches, via computer aided graphics (“it’s hand drawn by a machine”), to manipulations of the typeface Bembo (“the sort of typeface you’d want to print every f-ing book in”) to printing the output at Kallemeyn Press, a letterpress shop in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

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The concept of typesetting is pretty easily understandable to us, born into an alphabetic culture. There’s such fit between the two that one might almost imagine that the alphabet was invented with hot metal hand setting in mind. But Chinese doesn’t have an alphabet, so you kind of need a bit of type for every word in the dictionary, or at least every word in the work in hand. So you end up with a whole lot of sorts and a terrible navigation task to find the one you need next. As Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilisation in China tells us (Vol. 5, Pt.1) “Because a set of metal type might comprise two to four hundred thousand characters, we can readily comprehend the magnitude of the work and cost involved in printing with movable type. Very often two sets of type, large and small, had to be made to print, for example, text and commentaries . . . The tin types of Foushan even included three sets.”  “The principle of assembling individual characters to compose a piece of text can be traced back many centuries before Christ, as inscriptions on bronze vessels, pottery objects and cast metal seals have made evident, but the use of movable type for printing was not begun until the middle of the +11th century.” [NB: Gutenberg “invented” all this in the middle of the +15th century.]

Although typesetting from individual pieces of type was invented in China, woodblock printing remained the commonest method of print reproduction until the introduction of offset lithography in the late 19th century. Chinese script has always been an artistic as well as a communication medium, and the ability simply to photograph a page of handsome brush-drawn characters and print from that, rather than dizzyingly trying to reproduce their sense in individual types, must have seemed like a liberation to Chinese printers. Wikipedia tells us that to typeset his agricultural gazetteers around the turn of the 13th/14th centuries, Wang Zhen “used revolving tables about 2m in diameter in which the [individual wooden] characters were divided according to the five tones and the rhyme sections according to the official book of rhymes. The characters were all numbered and one man holding the list called out the number to another who would fetch the type.”

An improvement on simple chaos perhaps but not exactly a model of efficiency. Another strike against movable Chinese type was that if a reprint was called for the types (often wooden) would have to be reassembled with the same lengthy process, whereas a book printed by woodblocks could be reprinted just by taking out the blocks and mounting them on the press. There’s a Chinese Blockprinting Museum in Yangzhou, where they run demonstrations of woodblock carving and printing.

Here is a video of members of the Wang clan who still use movable wooden types for their genealogy printing. They still use a rhyming chant to select the individual types. This print survival seems in the process of being moved into a museum setting where it will be preserved in some form. Luckily the commentary is supplemented by subtitles.

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Here’s a Flickr post with lots of pictures of Rixing Type Foundry in Taipei. (I am, I admit, making an assumption that the pictures all come from the same foundry: I can’t read Chinese.) Atlas ObsuraTyperoom and NeoCha also show some good pictures.

See also Chinese typewriter



At No. 1 Queenston Street in Queenston, Ontario, just about seven miles downstream from the Niagara Falls stands the house where William Lyon Mackenzie first printed The Colonial Advocate in 1824. Within is a small museum dedicated to printing, The Mackenzie Printery and Newspaper Museum.

They have on show the oldest press in Canada, a wooden Louis Roy press, as well as a bunch of letterpress equipment including a Linotype caster. Examples of The Courier Advocate can be seen, and of course the gift shop offers you facsimiles.




An effigy of Mr Mackenzie greets you as you enter. Perhaps the most fascinating feature of this image is Mr Mackenzie’s beard. Turns out the beard is merely a sort of chin strap to hold on his wig. Now whether this was the case in real life, or as I suspect merely true of this particular manifestation, I cannot confirm. Contemporary portraits and his bust outside the Legislative Assembly of Ontario in Toronto suggest that the actual beard was pretty real. We were told that to emphasize his point Mr Mackenzie would often throw his wig to the ground. He certainly was a turbulent man, starting his newspaper to give vent to his dissatisfaction at the land policies, patronage, and crooked justice of the ruling colonial administration. He was the first mayor of Toronto in 1834. He fled at times to the United States of America, to escape bankruptcy in 1826, and to avoid prosecution for rebellion after The Battle of Montgomery’s Tavern in 1837, when as leader of an armed revolt he had a price, £1,000, on his head. Born in 1795 in Dundee, Scotland, he died of an apoplectic seizure at his home in Toronto in 1861.

The highlight of your trip to the museum is the printing of a proclamation of your attendance. You have to typeset your own name by hand from an inevitably sparse collection of sorts in a job case. Word spaces were in notably short supply. The attending apprentice then fits this type into a standing form, locks it up, inks it with a couple of ink balls, and runs off one copy which you take away as a souvenir of your visit. The press used for this is not the Louis Roy, but a sturdier cast-iron Albion press made by Hopkinson & Cope of Finsbury, London.

While you visit the Mackenzie Printery do not fail to visit the many excellent wineries in the region.

Niagara-on-the-Lake, basically the right hand bit of the map above, is also the home of The Shaw Festival.


Stanley Morison’s name was always mentioned with reverence in the Pitt Building in the sixties and seventies. He had died in 1967. As typographical advisor to the University Press his name had long been the calling card of all who wished to celebrate and cement Cambridge’s place of preeminence among letterpress printers.

Nicolas Barker, Morison’s biographer, speaks for about ¾ of an hour in this video of a talk at the Cooper Union in New York. (If you don’t see a video above, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.)

Morison became interested in type as a result the purchase of the 10 September 1912 supplement to The Times dealing with printing and its history. He was, apart from his typographical work, notable for two main things. He always wore a black suit of ecclesiastical cut with a black hat, and was a life-time socialist, imprisoned during the First World War for his pacifist beliefs.

Any publisher at all interested in design should read First Principles of Typography, a brief introduction to his style: simplicity, balance, a historical sensitivity and attention to detail.

Many book designers need to see his remarks, near the bottom of this page about ‘bright’ typography. “Even dullness and monotony in the typesetting are far less vicious to a reader than typographical eccentricity or pleasantry.” The designer’s work should ideally remain invisible to the reader’s (conscious) mind. Your job is to ease communication between author and reader; no more and no less.

See also my February post Stanley Morison.


To help with your vacation planning, here’s a list of letterpress printing museums around the world supplied by the American Amateur Press Association. The Association of European Printing Museums also has a list, this one with an interactive map. Both sites include links to individual museums’ websites.

Unusual to find a 16th century printed page together with the woodcut responsible for it. This picture of a type of lettuce from Pietro Andrea Mattioli’s Herbal was printed in 1562 and hand colored. Here’s the page, and below it the hand-cut woodblock from which it was printed. The type below would be locked up in the forme along with the woodcut, and the heading type, plus any other pages being printed in the same impression.

These pictures come from the Folger Library’s exhibition Beyond Words: Book Illustration in the Age of Shakespeare, which runs from 24 February to 3 June 2018.

Interpreting the block is one of these duck/rabbit problems. Until you see what’s raised and what’s recessed, your eye insists on seeing it the other way round. Remember the black lines, in order to pick up the ink and transfer it to the paper, have to be higher than the background which has been cut away. Interestingly Folger tells us that after this job was completed the block was reused and has a portrait carved into the other side.

Maybe such woodcut survivals are more common than I had imagined. Here’s another one from an earlier work by Mattioli which appears on his Wikipedia page.

Here’s the trailer for Pressing on: The Letterpress Film, linked to via Medium.

The film was financed with help from a Kickstarter campaign. Here Erin Beckloff, the co-director, talks about the origins of the concept.

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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?