Archives for category: Letterpress

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.

The men’s room in the basement of the Grolier Club on East 60th Street contains this platen press. All pressing needs dealt with here.

It carries a little label which explains the machine, but not its storage location:

And here’s one in operation (a platen press, not a men’s room). The video is less than a minute and half long, so just click that arrow. If you are getting this via e-mail the YouTube video may not show, so click on the title at the top of the post to view it in your browser.

A nice symmetry can be seen in the background, behind the operator’s head.

The disk shaped part is not the platen. In the video you can see the ink rollers running over the disk in order to spread the ink evenly across the image area (this is the function of the disk) before running below to ink the type. The platen is the plate onto which the operator is putting the paper, and when it moves down it presses the paper firmly against the inked type.

More history can be found at Letterpress Commons.

enschede-haarlem_type_foundry_in_1892Joh. Enschedé en Zonen was founded in Haarlem in 1703, and began making their own type in 1743 at a time when most other printers had abandoned foundry work and were buying their types from outside. The company continues as a security printer printing banknotes, postage stamps etc.  In the world of typography the company is perhaps best known as the place where Jan van Krimpen’s font were made.

This film showing Paul Helmuth Rädisch cutting punches by hand at Enschedé in 1957, is narrated by Matthew Carter who also provides a fascinating discussion following Carl Dair’s short film.

Carl Dair, a Canadian typographer, worked as in intern in Haarlem in 1956-7 and while he was there made this film of what was a dying craft. Dair’s Epistles to the Torontonians was reviewed in the TLS of 27 January 2017. The film, Gravers and Files is included in a CD accompanying the book, though it is also available on-line at YouTube (as here) and at Vimeo.

p8082006Cambridge University Press’ Printing Division, referred to by us publishing staff as UPH (University Printing House) used to be located in the middle of town behind the Pitt Building on Trumpington Street.

The Pitt Building

The Pitt Building

The best perhaps that can be said for the building they moved to in the sixties on the southern edge of town, (shown at the top) is that it was functional. No longer did lorries have to be squeezed into Mill Lane or skids of sheets moved up and down from floors at different levels in old buildings that had been smashed together: the work could flow. The University repossessed the buildings behind, and the Pitt Building remained the publishing office, and it was from there that I set out for the new world.

32 E 57th. The gigantic structure behind only arrived recently.

32 E 57th. The vacant lot next door (in front) was occupied by a building in those days.

When I first came over to New York to work for Cambridge University Press’s American Branch at 32 East 57th Street, a small part of my salary was paid by the Printing Division. My UPH duties consisted almost entirely of just being there to answer the phone. They were not looking to increase their business in USA; just to service such accounts as they already had. The key factor in the success of any UK book manufacturer’s ability to get American work has always been the state of the $/£ exchange rate. At that time it was not favorable, and work (like me) was flowing the other way. The UPH phone rarely rang. When it did, all involved were happy to find a British accent on the line able to talk about demy octavo, picas and ems. One of my predecessors in this role had been Brian Allen, a full-time rep., and a man of considerable typographic ability. He became after his return to England a full-time letter-cutter in stone.

It was in my capacity as a UPH representative that I inherited a membership of the Typophiles, at that time a rather traditional-minded organization of aging letterpress fans, typographers and bibliophiles. As the representative of Cambridge printing I received respect way beyond my personal deserts. The organization still exists, as manifested in this their Facebook page. The really good thing about this organization was the keepsakes you could pick up at their monthly lunch-time meetings held at the National Arts Club in Grammercy Park. For instance we had a series of meetings addressed by wood engravers each of whom brought something for us. I still have framed and on display original pieces by John DePol, Clare Leighton, Barry Moser, John Lawrence, even Reynolds Stone (though he didn’t appear in person). Fritz Eichenberg I don’t have, but as he was a member of the Typophiles, probably his role was exclusively as organizer of the series. At our Christmas meeting we’d get a goody-bag containing three or four books: several published and printed by the Typophiles themselves, but others donated by publishers. Ah, those were the days!

Sometime in the late eighties or early nineties the UPH stopped doing Monotype hot metal composition. This was a serious break in what had always been their pride and joy: fine hot metal composition and letterpress printing, arguably the finest in the world. Most of their business in the USA by that point consisted of finishing up the few multi-volume sets of The Papers of X or Y which a few American university presses had been typesetting and printing in Cambridge. The presses which had committed this work were naturally discombobulated by the failure of their supplier to be able to continue typesetting their series in Monotype before they had even gotten half way through the project. In large projects like this volumes come in at widely separated intervals as one volume editor or another finds more or less time for the work. Obviously if you go to Cambridge to get hot metal Monotype Garamond, having it switched to a filmset version, even if the two versions are pretty indistinguishable to the man in the street, is rather like being stabbed in the back typographically speaking. I got an enquiry from one of the few surviving letterpress houses in America, The Heritage Press, in Charlotte, NC, as to whether they could buy the Dante matrices from Cambridge. As this came right at the end of my tenure at CUP, I don’t know whether the sale was ever consummated, allowing the Collected Papers of this or that founding father to continue in the same font, or not. Dante was unfortunately a rare typeface, and wasn’t one that would be available filmset. I suspect it didn’t happen — I have the hint of a memory that the mats had already been disposed of — but in any case Heritage Printers in their turn have departed the scene, so it would anyway have only been a stop-gap solution. We seem no longer to be able to plan for the ages.

And now, just to drive home that point, the University Printing House’s operations, which had been transferred by sale to a competitor who’d moved them to Bar Hill, have disappeared in the closure of that company. The hangar-like University Printing House building is now occupied by Cambridge’s publishing staff, the custom-made Edinburgh Building across the street, to which publishing operations had moved from the Pitt, having been pulled down.

Giambattista Bodoni was born in Saluzzo in northern Italy in 1740. His father and his grandfather were printers but at the age of 18 the ambitious Giambattista decamped to Rome. After a while he succeeded in getting work at the Collegio di Propaganda Fide, the Vatican’s missionary department which had a printing office. There he got exposure to their many foreign types.

He was tipped as the printer to the Duke of Parma and went there in 1768. He spent the rest of his life in Parma. Like so many 18th century printers Bodoni fell in love with the work of John Baskerville, who revolutionized the print world by achieving a lighter pressure allowing for thinner lines on smoother paper. The extensive use of white space, which Bodoni favored in imitation of Baskerville, established our preference nowadays for well spaced type. One of the tour-de-force works he printed was a book with the Lord’s Prayer in 155 different languages, many with their own typeface: this he presented to the Pope in 1806.


From a typographical point of view, probably his most important work is his Manuale Tipografica which was eventually printed by his widow who took over the business when Bodoni died in 1813. You can see on the title page the reference to La Vedova, the widow.

Bodoni’s typefaces, archetypical modern face, feature very thin serifs. A warning: do not try to reverse Bodoni out of a solid color (don’t try to reverse any type out of 4-color process, unless it’s very large). The thin serifs will plug if you do and make you look like a fool!

The Columbia University Book History Colloquium sponsored a talk in September by Valerie Lester who recently published a biography of Bodoni.

Video sent via Atlas Obscura.

Caxtons are mechanical birds with many wings
and some are treasured for their markings –

they cause the eyes to melt
or the body to shriek without pain.

I have never seen one fly, but
sometimes they perch on the hand.

Thus Craig Raine in his 1979 poem “A Martian sends a postcard home”.

I myself have known one or two Caxtons to fly: many a schoolmaster delighted in throwing the book at their recalcitrant pupils’ head. As I remember it young boys, being attacked by such a bird were more likely to shriek without pain, rather than to allow their eyes to melt — unless they laughed so hard they’d weep. The lot of a schoolmaster was ever a tough one. The Caxton’s multiple wings do often flutter invitingly when you are reading in the open air, and one in the hand is definitely preferable to any number in the bush. Being left out under a bush is definitely bad for a Caxton’s well-being.

The Oxford English Dictionary somewhat stolidly and redundantly defines a Caxton as “a book printed by Caxton” but follows up with a charmingly expressed second meaning: “A variety of printing-type, imitating that first used in England by Caxton, introduced by Vincent Figgins in 1855 (for his reprint of the Chess book).” OUP does note that this definition hasn’t been updated since 1869, at which time perhaps the fact that Caxton had printed a book entitled The History of the Game of Chesse was on the tip of everyone’s tongue. (Wikipedia notices Vincent’s father but is silent about our Vincent’s work at the family typefoundery.)

William Caxton is a bit of a mystery man. He was born around 1422 in Kent, probably in Hadlow but maybe Tenterden. He is credited with being the first Englishman to introduce a printing press into Britain, having gotten into the new business of printing while living in Bruges. There he printed the first book known to have been printed in English, Lefèvre’s Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, probably in 1473. He set up his press in Westminster in 1476, the first known output of which was an edition of The Canterbury Tales. He was a jack of all trades and acted as editor and translator — a versatility not unusual in the early days of print. Unsurprisingly the date of his death is also uncertain; probably 1491.

One of the things we can be certain about is that Caxton had no input in the design of the typeface named after him by Mr Figgins. This illustration shows a page from Caxton’s book (from the Figgins facsimile). Caxton obtained his types from Flanders or later from France.



img_0170The modern Caxton type looks like this, which appears to bear zero relation to the original unless you regard the curlicue-ish serifs as imitation.

Robert Smail’s Printing Works is now owned by the National Trust for Scotland, who’s 2008 video podcast introduces us to a range of unusual locally-made equipment while taking us on a tour of the plant illustrated by a series of photos.

The occasion prompting this post is Keith Houston’s visit reported on in his Shady Characters blog. Robert Smail’s was a jobbing printer, though they did print, and subsequently own a little local paper called The St. Ronan’s Standard and Effective Advertiser.

The jobbing printer I had vacation jobs at in Galashiels was a bit less picturesque than this one. McQueen’s printing works was behind their shop front in Channel Street. Screen Shot 2016-08-16 at 1.21.34 PM

McQueen’s big speciality was targets for rifle shooting of which they printed (and still do as a division of Sykes Enterprises Inc.) masses and masses. Their history is shown here. When I was a lad the business was run by Dot McQueen, and when she retired it was taken on by the Gray’s who had been working there for years. They developed it massively to print and package computer software in the days when that was such a big business. It’s good to see they survive yet.

See Stephen Fry build a wooden press using only technologies available in the 15th century, so that he can print one replica page of the Gutenberg Bible. This film is almost an hour long, but it is worth the time: he’s such a likable presenter.

Now while it is probably true that Gutenberg did indeed build (or arrange to have built) his own press in the way Stephen Fry’s collaborators do here, this was not Gutenberg’s invention. Printing presses existed before his day, so the idea of inspiration illuminating the Gutebergian mind as he visited a vineyard is a pleasant fiction. We knew fine how to build a printing press long before Gutenberg’s time. What Gutenberg did invent was the casting of single pieces of reusable metal type from which pages could be assembled and printed. That was a revolutionary efficiency gain and enabled an industry to take off: in spite of Mr Fry’s lyrical tributes, however, it was not the first time multiple identical copies had been available.

Stan Nelson, the type cutter and caster who appears in Stephen Fry’s film, was featured in my earlier posts, Punchcutting and Casting type by hand,where there  are videos looking at this, the true Gutenbergian breakthrough, in more detail.

Link to the Fry video via The Scholarly Kitchen.