A Brief History of Letterpress Printing
Part One
Click Here for Part 2.

Letterpress Printing is a process that is, in the Western World, largely attributed to the developments of one Johannes Ganzfleisch, or "Gutenberg", who was by trade and profession a metalurgist. In the 15th century, that would have been interpreted as a goldsmith-alchemist. In reality, Letterpress printing should be confined to the art of moveable type, or images which can be arrange and re-arranged to suit the need. In the case of Letterpress, those images are letters, numbers, and other devices catagorised as 'figures'.

The Idea was indeed not original. China tried using moveable, interchangeable type hundreds of years prior, but the idea fell short of practicality owing to the 600-or-so characters needed to have a complete set of characters for one of over 60 distinct languages in China alone! In Europe, Gutenberg only had to deal with - in theory - approximately 24 characters, 10 digits, and a modicum of punctuation. In actuality, Johannes Gutenberg produced 270 different characters, in order to reproduce hand variations of each letter!

At One Time "Letterpress" was a term applied only to that printing art that utilised moveable metal or wooden type, but has now come to mean any sort of "positive" surface relief printing. Positive meaning that the raised surface of the printing plate, or die, receives the ink and is 'stamped' in some manner, or imprinted onto a receiving surface. This, as opposed to "negative" surface printing, or intaglio, where a recess is incised onto a plate, filled with ink, the raised surface is wiped clear of ink, and the receiving surface, almost universally paper, is forced into the recess to receive the ink. Thus, Letterpress Raised Surface printing is the opposite of negative intaglio. At one time, all raised surface printing was referred to as "Typography", from the greek typos, which means a copy, or duplicate of. The idea being a reproduction of an object. Today, Typography is referred to as the study of Letters, Fonts, Characters, and the designing thereof.

Raised Surface Printing in and of itself, predates Gutenberg in the West by a considerable margin. Monastics of the Medeival period produced 'Block Books', which were carved upon a single block of wood and imprinted onto various vellum or paper products. The ancient Romans utilised block printing for fabric printing, as did the Greeks before them. The idea of a "stamp" was certainly not new. But the idea of printing a complete book, such as the Bible, was considered impractical owing to the time it would take to carve each page. Practical "publishing" was not even possible until Gutenberg's marvellous inventions. Yes, inventions plural. You see, Gutenberg had to develop not only the type and the press, but also the paper suitable for use with his process, the metallurgy suitable for printing hundreds and thousands of impressions, and the ways and means of duplicating these pieces, which means he invented the type caster and developed the type Matrix. Thus, Gutenberg had not only to develop a product and a method, but also the means by which to make it all possible. Gutenberg did not have inks, for example, to suit his purpose. The available inks were much too thin, Thus, he had to develop even the very ink. As far as we know, Gutenberg did not have a development team, because much of this was kept very secretive owing to the sensitive political and mercantile nature of his day and place.

The video shown above features the letterpress operation at Firefly Press. While this video does not so much show history, it provides an excellent interpretation of the process, which is more germain to our subject at hand. Here we see printing and typecasting, not from the 1400's, but more toward the close of the 19th century, which is closer to the process largely used by most Letterpress Shops. It is my hope that you will enjoy this peek into the world of Letterpress Printing. The next installment is Part 2, Letterpress Today.