Letterpress: The Forerunner of Modern Printing & Its Recent Revival

Posted Thursday, January 30th, 2014 by .

If you spend any time at all in the art, design or technology worlds, chances are at some point you have heard the term “letterpress” used and didn’t understand what it meant. You might not have known that it is actually the oldest form of printing. According to The Happy Dragons’ Press, letterpress is when “ink is applied to the surface of metal type (which has a raised surface with a reverse image, like a rubber stamp) and the type is pressed against paper to make an ‘impression’.” This slight indentation where the type pressed against the paper, coupled with a thick layer of ink, should give the finished piece a noticeably tactile quality.

Letterpress Printing Tools
Image via Wikipedia

From its invention by Johannes Gutenberg in the mid-15th century until the 19th century, letterpress printing existed as the standard form of printing text, and until the second half of the 20th century, remained in wide use for books and other projects. For 500 years, letterpress served as the primary, everyday printing technique until offset lithography, a printing method in which the images on metal plates are transferred (offset) onto rubber blankets and then onto the surface to be printed, became the norm for mass-produced print media. Of course by the end of the 20th century, digital printing and related technologies inked their status as the industry standard.

Letterpress First Page of the New Testament
Image via Wikipedia

Despite these various changes, letterpress still continues to be suitable for some specialized commercial applications, especially in the stationery and wedding invitation arenas. In more recent years, letterpress publishing has undergone a revival among modern-day enthusiasts in the U.S., Canada and the U.K., who prize the old method’s hand-made qualities and historical nature. Renewed interest in letterpress can possibly be somewhat attributed to Martha Stewart Weddings magazine, which began using pictures of letterpress invitations in the 1990’s that appealed to brides who appreciated the texture and beauty of the creations they saw.

Letterpress Wedding Invitation Sarah Josh
Image via Paper Crave

Though time consuming and labor intensive, letterpress falls into a unique niche. While it cannot compete with lithography and present-day digital printing techniques, it shines as an artisanal craft medium perfectly suited to producing visually stunning work in smaller quantities.

A letterpress practitioner must possess a great deal of skill. In fact, an apprenticeship in the field once required a six-year commitment. There also used to be a distinction between the specialists who lined up the type (known as compositors) and the machine room staff who operated the presses, but today’s letterpress artisans are typically solo acts who have had to master all the disciplines involved.

Letterpress Wedding Reply Card
Image via Deeply Impressed

The resurgence of letterpress can be owed to emerging organizations that now teach the art form in states such as California, New York, Illinois, Minnesota, North Carolina, Washington and Virginia. Studios specializing in letterpress goods have also sprung up across the nation.

Letterpress Valentines Day Card
Image via Greenwich Letterpress

There’s quite a lot to explore when it comes to the glittering world of letterpress. Enjoy getting lost in the possibilities on these sites and more:

Greenwich Letterpress

Letterpress Commons

The Beauty of Letterpress

Letterpress Daily

Pressing Letters

We Love Letterpress

Deeply Impressed

Briar Press

Porridge Papers

Greg Gladman

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Greg Gladman has two degrees from the University of Cincinnati and prides himself on managing the operations and customer service at Ink Technologies. With a mind like a vault, he is full of useful and useless information, making him an asset to the company and to his Tuesday night trivia team. When he is not working, he spends his time bowling and playing golf. Greg dedicates much of his free time to raising money and awareness in support of the fight against blood cancers. You can find him on .

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