LETTERPRESS: From the Gutenberg Bible...to modern Letterpress Printed Wedding Invitations
The invention of letterpress printing
The creation of letterpress printing is believed to be the most important invention in history. Johann Gutenberg of Mainz, Germany, craftsman and inventor, created letterpress printing around the year 1440 by inventing moveable type and by combining it with existing technologies. This allowed him to compete with hand produced manuscripts, the only way of reproducing texts at the time. His method of printing from lead moveable type, a novel letterpress, and oil based inks allowed for the first time the mass production of books. Letterpress printing is done by inking type, or an engraving, and pressing that form into paper with the use of a letterpress. In addition to the primary function of propagating the written word, skilled letterpress printers, practiced in the craftsmanship, can achieve a unique impression that can be outstanding and beautiful.
The "Gutenberg Bible"
In early 1455 Gutenberg and his craftsmen began the print run of his first and most famous book, the "Gutenberg Bible". It took about one year to produce the approximate 180 letterpress printed copies; about the same amount of time it would have taken a scribe to complete one hand written manuscript of the same text. Using a Latin translation from about 380 AD the type was hand set; inked in black, and the individual sheets were letterpressed. Next, blue and red color initials and illuminations were hand drawn. Finally, the individual leaves were folded, gathered and bound into volumes. Today, Gutenberg's first book, one of the finest of all the printed books, is considered to be the rarest and most valuable printed item in the world. It is thought that if a complete Gutenberg Bible became available today it would sell for as much as 100 million dollars. In 2000, in honor of his invention, Gutenberg was chosen by an international panel of scientists as the "most outstanding personality of the millennium".
The early expansion of letterpress printing
Gutenberg's methods were soon copied by others and letterpress printing quickly spread throughout Europe. As letterpress printers grew in numbers so did the printing of books. Books became more accessible and less expensive; a larger part of the populace had access to texts that previously only the rich could afford. This facilitated rapid development in the sciences, art, and religion. Letterpress printed texts were essential to the success of the protestant Reformation. Fifty years after the invention of the letterpress more than fifteen million books consisting of some thirty thousand titles existed in the world. Johannes Gutenberg's invention of the letterpress was so successful that for the next 500 years the propagation of the printed word was almost exclusively done by letterpress printers.
Benjamin Franklin, Printer
Over the next five centuries letterpress printing improved continuously and by early 1900 it had become highly mechanized. The world wide industry supported many enterprises of large and small letterpress printers and the letterpress craft flourished. The most celebrated printer in history is Benjamin Franklin, one of America's founding fathers, who is credited with defining the character of our new nation. Born in Boston in poverty, he had almost no formal education. By age 12 he became a printer's apprentice, and eventually he became publisher of the Pennsylvania Gazette. He was the author of "Poor Richard's Almanac", a best seller, second only to the Bible. By age 42 he had become a wealthy man and that enabled him to pursue a life of statesmanship. He is an American hero and he is revered as the printers' patron saint.
The demise and renaissance of letterpress printing
During the 1950's the advent of offset printing and phototypesetting technologies revolutionized the printing industry. The result was the rapid demise of letterpress printing as commercially viable. Most letterpress printers were forced to abandon letterpress printing and convert to the offset method. Today offset lithography dominates. But a craft with so rich a history as letterpress printing does not simply disappear.
There exists today many letterpress printers, in mostly small shops, whose passion and dedication is unprecedented. Printing press manufacturers abandoned letterpress manufacturing in the 1980's, but many letterpresses of all types still exist; some in pristine condition. From hand fed platens such as the C&P; to the famous Vandercook proof presses; to automatic cylinder presses such as the Heidelberg KSBA, considered the Rolls Royce of letterpresses; many of those letterpresses are in use today. Many owners of those letterpresses value them highly; they treat them with respect, pamper them, and use them lovingly.
From invitations, name cards, stationery, announcements, note cards and greeting cards, to limited edition prints and books, elegant letterpress printed items are produced whose beauty will be cherished forever. The quality of the work done by these letterpress printers is unsurpassed and the letterpressed work they meticulously produce is highly valued. Those enduring letterpress printers and their long dedication to the craft of letterpress printing are largely responsible for the preservation of letterpress. As the twenty-first century begins, a letterpress renaissance is taking place. This renaissance is prompted by enlightened buyers who acquire the exceptional and exciting letterpress printed items, and by the letterpress printers who passionately produce them. The growing popularity of letterpress printed wedding invitations highlights this renaissance.
Here at Hitchcock Press, our owner and artist J. Guy Gaulin is such an individual: There is a passion that compels him to maintain his letterpress roots: His dedication to the letterpress craft spans over half a century. Hitchcock Press' letterpress printed work reflects his discipline, high standard of quality, and commitment to his craft. His unique art and superb craftsmanship has positioned Hitchcock Press as premier letterpress printers.
At the forefront of the letterpress printing renaissance, Guy's award winning designs are specifically created for letterpress printing. He combines modern technology with old world craftsmanship to produce his distinctive work. Notable among his works are his Fine Art note cards and limited edition prints. They showcase the unique quality attained by the impression left on paper by letterpress printing; a quality that cannot be achieved by any other printing method. His GrayTone note cards and prints are exquisitely letterpressed in several solid values of gray ink and black ink. Each value of ink is letterpress printed in precise register and each value requires a separate letterpress plate and a separate pass through the letterpress. Guy's letterpress printed note cards and prints truly reflect "The Art of Letterpress Printing".