For over seven centuries, the letterpress has been an integral part of printing and communication. In this article, we’d like to go over the history of the letterpress, from its inception at the hands of inventor Johannes Gutenberg to its recent revival in small studios across the globe.
The Birth of the Letterpress
The history of letterpress printing begins in the 15th century, when a German inventor by the name of Johannes Gutenberg created the first mechanical movable type. Prior to Gutenberg’s creation, block printing was most commonly used in printing, a practice dating back to China 175 AD.
Gutenberg’s creation did wonders for the publishing world and is considered the impetus for the Printing Revolution. His genius included creating metal type; using capital letters, lowercase letters, and punctuation; and designing a longer-lasting oil-based ink made from turpentine, lampblack and walnut oil. Unlike the letterpress machines of the 19th century and on, Gutenberg’s did not contain rollers, meaning the human printer would manually lift paper in and out of the machine.
Gutenberg’s most famous printing is the Gutenberg Bible—otherwise known as the 42-Line Bible—which is considered one of the first mass-produced books created. Prior to the publishing of this book, priests and monks were the only people to have access to the written word. The Gutenberg Bible began the dawn of literacy for the public, including women. Upward to 180 copies are to known to have been printed, with only 49 surviving today (29 are incomplete). A single edition is valued anywhere from $25-35 million, with the last recorded purchase of a complete book being in 1978. Most Gutenberg Bibles call universities across the globe their home.
One of these final resting places is in our hometown of Austin, Texas. The Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin has one of few complete bibles in existence. You can view an interactive copy of the bible here.
The Printing Revolution in Europe and beyond
Gutenberg’s invention took Europe by storm. Soon, printing studios were popping up all over the continent, churning out Latin and Greek texts, scientific papers, religious works, and philosophic writings. For centuries, Europeans enjoyed having access to mass-produced works, and little changed with the letterpress machinery.
By the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, printing had changed dramatically. The 1800s saw both lithography—a printing process using a flat surface, oil, and water —and linotype—a printing machine that uses full lines of text—entering the printing world. The linotype, which was invented in Germany in 1884 by Ottmar Mergenthaler, built on the letterpress by enabling newspaper and magazine publishers to print more quickly and efficiently through the process of linecasting. The first newspaper to use linotype printing was the New York Tribune in 1886. This printing process was used by publications for decades until the advent of the computer.
The Letterpress Today
By the 1960s and 1970s, the letterpress machine became increasingly obsolete. Chandler & Price, one of the most iconic letterpress makers, stopped producing machines by 1964. During the late 20th century, letterpress enthusiasts could buy vintage machines for a couple hundred dollars. Now a Chandler & Price will cost a minimum of $1,000 on Ebay.
Most letterpress historians attribute the rebirth of letterpress printing, in part, to Martha Stewart, who championed letterpressed wedding invitations in the 1990s. Since then, letterpress printing has taken off, with letterpress studios popping up all over the world. Today, letterpress printers use their machines and talent to print on cards, invitations, posters, artwork business cards and other stationery.
In our Austin, Texas, studio we are proud to own six letterpress machines, ranging in age and maker. Each letterpress is named after a woman in printing who inspired us.
Our 1947 12X18 Kluge N Series is named after the Bronx-based artist and printer Judith Solodkin.
Our 1946 10 X 15 Kluge M Series is named after printer Ruth Ellis, who lived to 101 and was an LGBTQIA icon in her native Detroit.
Our 1917 10 X 15 Chandler & Price new style press with added Kluge feeder is named after Augusta Lewis Troup, a feminist and journalist from the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Our 1909 8 X 12 Chandler & Price old-style platen press is named after Katharine Graham, the former publisher of the Washington Post.
Our 1877 Alert Rotary press is named after Eliza Timothy, the first female newspaper editor and publisher.
And lastly, our tiny 5 X 8 Kelsey Mercury Excelsior Model P tabletop press is named after founder Kyle Hawley’s beloved grandmother Eloise Hale Craig, who was born during the Spanish flu and died at the age of 100 in 2019.
All photos are from our Austin, Texas studio and by Carolyn Fong.