Paper, Ink, and Letterpress

I just finished watching a great documentary about the amazing survival of ancient letterpress printing into the 21st century. Pressing On (Bayonet Media 2017) blends the incredible history of the technological revolution that in the mid-1400s catapulted printing from laborious hand transcriptions to the first mass production of the printed word.

As a youngster in the 1950s and 1960s, I remember seeing a few linotype machines in newspaper offices, and small letterpress machines in the back rooms of some businesses. The men who ran these machines were invariably gray-bearded, pipe-smoking old codgers who loved to show nosey kids how they worked. I can still hear the noisy iron presses clanking and smell the mixture of ink and tobacco smoke in the air. Both the machines and their operators fascinated me.

Offset printing replaced letterpress over the next several decades and, eventually, one could only find the old machines in museums and a few dusty basements. I’m sure most of them ended up as recycled iron or went to the dump. I never thought about it much until I became editor of a small newspaper in the late 1970s. Phototypesetting was just catching on, and the equipment was expensive. I rented time on one of them at a local print shop. The owner, a grizzled old fellow who not only had the modern Compugraphic® typesetting machine we rented but still actively used his old letterpress equipment. I realized then that all knowledge of this old trade would soon be lost, as the elderly guardians passed on.

What a pleasant surprise to watch this film spotlight an artistic revival of the craft. Apparently a few of those old codgers of the latter part of the last century did manage to pass their knowledge down to their children, and they have formed a vibrant community that draws artists, students, and history buffs together to create new art forms while keeping the old letterpress technology alive.

Here’s the trailer:

#printing #printingpress #ink

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