Tuesday, December 9, 2008

History Lesson: Letterpress

After losing myself in Mariaelisa Leboroni's xilographic wonderland yesterday, I thought I might learn more about the history of printing, especially letterpress, which is the most widespread recognizable descendant of woodblock printing.

The story goes that in 175 CE, the Chinese emperor decreed that the six most important lessons of Confucianism be carved in stone, such that an authentic text could be preserved for future generations. Scholars who wanted their own copies used graphite or charcoal to make rubbings of the stones, the way people today might take a rubbing from a gravestone or a bronze plaque.

Sometime before the eighth century, an industrious person tried carving such texts in relief, cutting away the stone around each letter, then inking the remaining surface before applying and peeling away a sheet of paper to it. The result was the first example of printing. Whole pages of religious texts were carved into stone and wood blocks, then printed on single sheets and scrolls, as printing flourished throughout what is now modern China and Korea. The market for these works was mainly among religious pilgrims.

The Koreans excelled at printing, and near the end of the 14th century realized that they could save time by producing individual, moveable letters, eliminating the need to carve an entire page. Interestingly, Korean printers were so daunted by trying to produce the variety of characters in the Chinese language that they invented their own national alphabet, known as han'gul.

Just as this was happening in Asia, the German goldsmith Johann Gutenberg began his own experiments with moveable type, using a wine press he converted to press the letterforms onto paper. As with Asian printers, Gutenberg found a ready audience for religious texts. His first works were a Bible and a psalm-book.

As printing technology grew more sophisticated, it allowed for type and drawings to be reproduced on the same page, and the rise of the religious press was paralleled, then overshadowed, by political and commercial printing in the early 17th century. Mechanical rotary presses and automated typesetting were invented in the mid-19th century, enabling newspapers to print daily editions for entire cities. Throughout the 20th century, the faster, more reliable technology of offset printing slowly edged out letterpress as the preferred means of printing.

But as the cast-off letterpress machines were retired, a number of them were rescued by smaller print shops and amateur printers. These groups have found a growing market of people enthusiastic about letterpress. Today, the bread and butter for independent letterpress printers lies in wedding invitations, but customers increasingly ask for letterpressed fliers, stationery, business cards, and art editions of books. Printers now often incorporate state-of-the-art technology in their work, foregoing the chore of setting type letter by letter by using photopolymer plates made from images typeset on a computer.

Castle in the Air has benefited from the flourishing of modern letterpress through our association with our dear friend Richard Seibert, who printed our first book, Castle in the Air, using vintage letterpress machines.

An interesting piece of letterpress trivia: When printers organized their individual pieces of type, they put the "big" letters in the top, or upper set of cases, and the "little" letters below.
Hence the alphabetical terms "upper-case" and "lower-case" today!

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