Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The History of Letterpress, Part 2

Gutenberg's press design was pretty much unchanged from the 15th century until 1800. Our old friend here:

…kept that up for a good three hundred years, until a man named Earl Stanhope made three significant improvements that made our pressman friend's life much easier.

First, he built his press entirely out of iron, which made it much stronger and allowed for larger images. Second, he invented a series of clever levers that reduced the pressman's efforts by about 90%, allowing him to work faster and more efficiently. Third, he added a moving carriage—so instead of raising the platen (the surface that presses the paper onto the type, i.e. the top piece of sandwich bread) high enough to ink the type every time, he only needed to raise it an inch or so and the type bed would slide out from under it for inking.

Taken together, these improvements increased the speed of the printing press fourfold, to 480 pages per hour.

But the real innovation was to arrive several years later, when Freidrich Kroenig invented the first automated press, powered by steam.

He'd spent a decade of his life trying to put together a mechanized printing press, and the final concoction was not only the first press powered by steam, it was also the first to use a cylindrical platen–so instead of being impressed by a flat surface coming down all at once, the type bed went under a roller that would press the paper down an inch at a time.

Nobody in Kroenig's native Germany wanted to buy one of the presses; they were too weird. He tried instead in England, and found his first customer in the London Times. Once all the kinks got worked out, and Kroenig added a new invention called a "perfecting machine" that allowed for both sides of the paper to be printed at once, the steamy press was churning out over 2,000 pages per hour. Stanhope's 480, which had been a major breakthrough only a decade earlier, suddenly looked sad, and his press became obsolete.

Many historians credit Kroenig's invention with the spread of newspapers, and with an increase in literacy generally.

But meanwhile, in America! A Bostonian named Daniel Treadwell had seen Kroenig's steam-powered press and was not impressed with its impressions. Kroenig's press did have its drawbacks: its prints tended to be sloppy, with blurred text, and it was extremely difficult to register accurately. Treadwell saw that old-fashioned platen machines produced better work, and he sought to make a mechanical version that used the same basic principle (no cylinders here, thanks), but would be powered by steam and would be fast enough for industrial applications.

In 1824 he unveiled the "Bed and Platen" press. It was somewhat slower than Kroenig's machine, and it took three people to run, but it produced much finer work making it suitable for fine book editions (i.e. lots and lots of Bibles).

Treadwell's press could be rigged to run off of steam, waterwheel, or horse-whim. If your press was horse-driven, though, you would have a problem because at the moment when the platen actually pressed into the paper the horse would get a sudden lurch. As a result, you would need to employ a horse-restarter to kickstart the animal once per cycle, as it would usually stop walking at this point.

Treadwell's presses, and others modeled off his, had a good run in America (they never really made it across the Atlantic), but by the 1880s improvements to cylinder presses like Kroenig's made the bed-and-platen obsolete. Once the cylinder press, which had always been faster, dealt with its sloppiness problems, Treadwells fell out of favor–except, oddly, with one stalewart Bible maker in Tennessee who owned twelve Treadwells and refused to give them up until finally he was forced out of business around the turn of the century. The rest of humanity, though, moved on. [Correction by Doug Charles: The Bible printer may have been using the famous "descendant" of the Treadwell, the Adams press. It is most unlikely—verging on impossible—that any examples of the wooden-framed Treadwell would have survived so long. On the other hand, his ownership of Adams presses would not have been so unusual, as many were running after the beginning of the 20th century.]

In other innovations:

In 1857 Richard M. Hoe invented a rotary press that could print on rolls of paper, removing the need to feed individual sheets and greatly speeding up the process.

The linotype machine was invented in 1887. It allowed an operator to type an entire line of text that would then be cast as a single piece of metal, removing the need to reset individual letters. It was mainly used for newspapers, which had to be printed fast. The main drawback, clearly, was that if the operator made one mistake, the whole line would have to be recast.

The monotype machine, also from 1887, was similar to the linotype machine except that when it cast the letters they weren't actually attached to one another. This way a single letter could be replaced without having to redo an entire line.

So if Kroenig, Treadwell, and Hoe were the godfathers of modern industrial printing, Stephen P. Ruggles was the spiritual ancestor of today's small press movement. As he himself unambiguously put it, "In 1830 or 1831, I invented and built, in New York, the first card or job press, I believe, ever constructed in any part of the world."

A job press is a press designed specifically for the printing of small items, such as cards, billheads, envelopes, and stationery. While Ruggles claims to have built his first "jobber"–as the presses came to be called–in 1830, his design wasn't patented or put into use until 1851. It was called the "Card & Billhead" press, and it's the basic design of all the platen presses being used by craft shops today.

The Card & Billhead was run by a foot-treadle and required just one operator. Unlike larger industrial presses, it had a fast setup time, and it was actually remarkably efficient–a practiced pressman could turn out over 1,000 pages per hour without needing a steam engine or a horse.

Incidentally, Ruggles was also the inventor of a machine that produced Braille Bibles for the blind.

The descendants of Ruggles' press are the platen presses mainly used by craft pressmen working today.

In our next installment, we'll look at the very first movement to refer to itself as the "Private Press Movement," which arose in opposition to the mechanical fist of the Industrial Revolution.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Welcome to the Team, Allison

Photo by Ellen Culpepper

We'd like to welcome Allison Fisher to the Gilah Press + Design team! Allison just graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art with a BFA in graphic design. She played a big part in MICA's Friends of Globe organization where she helped secure a permanent home for Globe Printing's collection at MICA (more info here).

After learning and printing alongside Kat and Erin for the past couple weeks, Allison has made it obvious that she is the perfect addition to the Gilah gang. Yay, Allison!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The History of Letterpress, a Series

This is a guest post from Alexis, a friend of Gilah Press + Design. Thanks, Alexis!

I'm going to tell you the history of letterpress printing, slowly, one article every two weeks. I'm going to start with Gutenberg, who didn't invent the letterpress but did invent the movable type that makes the process possible.

Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type around 1440 in Mainz, Germany. He also invented a press based on the wine presses of his time, with a large screw that had to be turned manually by this guy:

While this seems stupid time-consuming by today's standards, it was a huge improvement over the hand-lettering that had been the standard earlier.

Not surprisingly, the first book that Gutenberg printed was a Bible. It had blank spaces for large letters, decoration, and illustration, which customers could have added in by artists after purchase. No one knows exactly how many were made, but only 21 survive today, and they're generally considered to be the most valuable books in the world – no one knows for sure, though, because none have changed hands since 1978. This is the New York Public Library's Gutenberg Bible, the first to be brought to the United States:

The rapid spread of Gutenberg's design was actually due to a legal mishap: one of his investors managed to successfully sue him and he lost the rights to his invention. The investor let the schematic secrets out, and Europe started casting letters and building presses like crazy. By 1500 – about 50 years after Gutenberg printed his first Bible – there were over 1,000 presses that had printed over 8 million books.

Gutenberg's timing would turn out to be impeccable. He invented this tool for the rapid dissemination of information right before Europeans started opening major trade routes with the East and the Americas. Missionaries enthusiastically adopted the new technology and would print Bibles on board ships bound for America, then when they arrived they would be armed and ready for their holy takeovers. The first press to begin running outside of Europe was set up in Mexico City in 1544, and was used by missionaries to facilitate the distribution of holy literature.

(This is a random 17th-century illustration of Europeans arriving in America; note the meal preparation in the lower left.)

Some people weren't as pumped for the press as the Europeans. It was completely banned in the Ottoman Empire until the mid-1700s, on penalty of death. Two reasons: Muslim legal scholars weren't sure that the process was in accordance with Islamic law, and manuscript scribes had a lot of influence. European scribes had also tried to battle the spread of the press, but had less power and thus less success.

Ottoman rulers who found printing presses made this face:

Next time: the invention of the automated letterpress during the Industrial Revolution!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

trying our hand at handkerchief printing

A couple months ago we had some fun printing on handkerchiefs sent to us by a client for a surprise party invitation. We've only ever printed on fabric twice before for our "ten postcards" line, so we thought it might be a bit of a struggle.

In the end it turned out to be time-consuming, yet manageable. The easiest part about printing on the handkerchiefs was that they were all the same size, but it was a very custom job. Whitney, our senior letterpress printer, said, "We didn't turn the press on once." She worked together with Erin (Whitney's printing partner-in-crime) hand-cranking the press for each impression to make sure every print turned out perfectly.

The end result was stunning, and because of the girls' amazing patience, not one of the handkerchiefs were lost due to messy printing. We've since taken on another job that required printing on handkerchiefs.

If you're not sure if something can be letterpress printed, just shoot us an email ( and we'll let you know if we can do it. We're more than happy to take on any and all challenges, so bring it on!

Friday, June 10, 2011

Father's Day Greeting Ideas

When's the last time you contacted your dad? It's been that long, huh? Well, why don't you surprise him this Father's Day (coming up Sunday, June 19th) with a handwritten note straight from the heart?

Here are a couple Father's Day card suggestions from our own letterpress printed greeting lines that would work perfectly for your sweet message. To purchase the card, just click the image!

Two colors on 100% cotton paper. Measures 4.875” x 3.5” and comes with a gravel colored envelope.

One color on 100% cotton paper. Measures 5.5" square and comes with bright red envelope.

Two colors on handmade seed paper that grows wildflowers when planted! Measures 4.25” x 6” and comes with a khaki colored envelope.

Two colors on 100% cotton paper. Measures 6.25” x 3.5” and comes with a white envelope.

And for those stylish dads:

Both of the above: Two colors on 100% cotton paper. Measures 3.5" x 6.25" and comes with a gray envelope.

You could even consider sending him one of these manly postcards:

Two colors on 100% cotton paper. Eight cards per pack, two of each design. Measures 4.5″ × 6.25″ and comes wrapped in a belly band.

Whatever you do, just don't forget!

Friday, June 3, 2011

New/Old Machinery Calls Gilah Home

Before the Stationery Show we obtained a new Chandler and Price press! Unfortunately we weren't able to get an old press out of our hair in time, so with the help of some friends the old press was moved to another place in the studio to make way for the new one.

Chris, Jessica's boyfriend, was up on the truck getting the new press secure enough to be rolled into our studio...

...while we all stared and worried ourselves to death (from left to right: Jessica, Erin and Whitney). Was the truck's bed close enough to the door? Would the press fall over? Would it go as smoothly as we were hoping?! Only time would tell.

After what seemed like an eternity, the new press was finally rolled into place. Quite easily, at that. Yay!

Just a couple weeks later, Jessica and Chris purchased a retro General Electric fridge from a local antique shop. Jess and Chris didn't have the ability to bring it into their current apartment, so we decided to let the fridge live at our studio for now.

We were really excited about the built-in wine rack and the fact that all the shelves turn outward and all the way around!

There's nothing quite like gorgeous new/old machinery to brighten our day.

Friday, May 20, 2011

National Stationery Show 2011

Phew! We just got back from the whirlwind that is the stationery show. It was our 6th year and, as usual, we had a great time. Our set up on Friday night took quite a bit longer than expected, but it all came together in the end.

This is the disaster zone our studio turns into every year when we get ready:

Here we are during one of our late-night assembly parties:

And a couple more shots of the booth in New York:

We were pleased to come back from the National Stationery Show to quite a bit of online press! Here are some of the sites we've written for or have been featured on, not to mention all the Twitter mentions we got:

- Fantabulously Frugal Weddings
- Martha Stewart Weddings: The Bride's Guide
- Design*Sponge
- HOW Design
- The Present Perfect

Monday, April 18, 2011

Birthday Party for Pica

Okay, so we didn't actually throw a party for our studio cat Pica, but it looks like we could have. The amazing folks over at Blow Up! posted photos of a birthday party they threw for their own cat, Mr. Humperdink, who happens to look just like Pica! So cute. Check out the rest of the photos here.

Below: The real Pica is on the right.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Hatch Show Print Visits Baltimore

This is a guest post from Alexis, a friend of Gilah Press + Design. Thanks, Alexis!

Gilah Press recently took an educational field trip to a lecture by Jim Sheradden of Hatch Show Print, the legendary Tennessee letterpress shop whose posters have influenced a generation of graphic designers even if they don't know it.  

Sheradden's visit was timed to correspond with the official public announcement of MICA's Globe purchase, and hundreds of letterpress enthusiasts showed up to learn and to celebrate. Sheradden, for his part, arrived confident, goateed, and vaguely un-PC, and explained the history of his shop with affectionate zeal.

Sheradden began working for Hatch after his dream of becoming a songwriter had quietly deposited him in Tennessee, jobless. The shop had already been in continuous operation since 1879, and when Sheradden arrived it was in danger of going under due to the advent of faster, cheaper printing methods. What Sheradden realized was that letterpress' historical interest and homespun appeal could be combined with contemporary technology to make a new business model, and rather than trying to update the shop, he chose to celebrate its oldness.

These days, a lot of Hatch's revenue is produced not from the physical prints themselves, but from the scanned images of them. Usually, the shop will receive a commission from someone music-industry affiliated (sometimes a venue, sometimes an agent, sometimes a merch company) and produce a small run of posters which are then sent off to be scanned and reproduced using the modern methods. The hand-printed posters are sold as collectors' items, and the shop also receives payment for the right to copy its images onto t-shirts and mass-produced advertisements. Everybody wins.

What was really interesting was hearing Sheradden talk about how he sees his shop – he doesn’t really see it as "his" shop at all. He calls himself the "steward" of the Hatch collection, and says that he feels a responsibility to the heritage of the shop. For this reason, he's never added any type to the collection, though his employees do still produce original linoleum cuts for some prints. The phrase he kept repeating, his favorite soundbite I suppose, was "preservation through production." He also kept referring to the shop as a "working museum."

Hatch's aesthetic has become so tied to the visual history of country music and rock and roll that most people simply take the look for granted without realizing where it came from. As Sheradden's introducer (a novelist whose name I wish I could remember) put it, "Hatch has put an idea in the reptile brain of designers of what a poster should look like." That horrifying digital font that's supposed to look like old wood type? Nobody ever would have bothered inventing that if Hatch hadn't made hand-done cool.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Publication and Mutiples Fair

This is a guest post from Alexis, a friend of Gilah Press + Design. Thanks, Alexis!

We're excited for the upcoming Publications and Multiples Fair at Baltimore's Open Space Gallery. Since its inception in 2009, the gallery has been extending fibrous roots into the local art scene, showcasing a wide range of emerging talent in areas from sculpture to print to doo-wop singing. Last year's publications & multiples fair was great:

…and this year promises even more delights because the fair has almost doubled in size, expanding from 13 to 22 participants. Newcomers include record label Wildfire Wildfire, champions of local heroes like Dan Deacon, OCDJ, and Ecstatic Sunshine; AK Press, publisher and distributor of radical texts by both fresh-voiced newcomers and anarcho-heavyweights like Noam Chomsky and Guy Debord; Creative Capitalism, legendary local publishing/performance art/music collective; and over a dozen more fresh faces drawn by Open Space's steadily-growing reputation (it was City Paper's "Best Gallery 2010") and unabashed lust for young, tender concepts.

Expect prints, zines, comics, and books, and also live poetry readings from Jeremy Sigler and Eileen Myles and a lecture from North Drive Press founder Matt Keegan (click on that link; North Drive Press is fresh and innovative and awesome).

The Fair takes place this Saturday, March 26, and Sunday, March 27 from noon until 6PM at 2720 Sisson Street in Remington, Baltimore. The lecture will be given on Saturday at 3, and the poetry will be read on Sunday at 7.

And, yes, those familiar-seeming posters were printed by Globe. Cool!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Friends of Globe Make MICA History

This is a guest post from Alexis, a friend of Gilah Press + Design. Thanks, Alexis!

James Brown, Ike & Tina Turner, Pink Floyd, and The Jackson 5 have more in common than just musical genius and questionable emotional stability: all these musical superpowers, along with hundreds more, turned to Globe Poster to advertise their tours.

Globe was in operation here in Baltimore from 1929 until last summer, when it was finally forced out of business. While the shop also took on more nitty-gritty projects like "public auction" and "home for sale" signage, it's best known for its huge contribution to the visual history of R&B and rock and roll. The shop stopped operating its enormous letterpresses ("enormous" = 24,000 lb) in the late 1980s in favor of cheaper offset presses, and recently sold the old Miehle letterpresses off as scrap metal.

The shop's enormous collection of materials, equipment, type, cuts, photos, and posters is currently lying as it fell, in position in the company's huge Highlandtown warehouse. Owner Bob Cicero was stuck housing equipment that was no longer paying for itself – until recently, when help arrived in the form of 20 MICA students with matching t-shirts.

I recently spoke with Friends of Globe treasurer Sabrina Kogan about the process of saving Globe's collection from being auctioned off piece-by-piece and melted down into scrap metal.

Friends of Globe was inspired by Mary Mashburn, proprietor of local Typecast Press and letterpress instructor at MICA. She first heard about Globe's financial quagmire while trying to arrange a tour of the shop for her Fall 2009 letterpress class, and, as a hopeless letterpress romantic, she thought it would be a tragedy if the collection was split up. She began to work with people from various fields – designers, art editors, folklorists – to try to find a way to save it, but it wasn't until MICA students got involved that a solution was reached.

Sabrina told me that the project began with a blog and a run of screenprinted t-shirts. The shirts were donned by about 20 pro-Globe students at one of the quarterly "town hall" meetings where MICA President Fred Lazarus hears the opinions and ideas of his plebes. Apparently Lazarus was "pretty taken aback" by this color-coordinated display, and began exploring the possibility of purchasing the collection.

The Friends of Globe were then tasked with explaining why the purchase would be good for the school's curriculum. Sabrina, a graphic design major, explained one of the points they made: "I think it's crucial, when learning about type, that you have a chance to actually use type. So when you're talking about things like kerning and spacing, they're real things, not just buttons on the computer. It brings it to life."

The group also pointed out the value of the collection as a piece of art history, and one that no other art college can match.

After a few more meetings, the group successfully convinced the school to move forward, in a happy reaffirmation of grassroots power. The purchase was publicly announced last week, though specific details have not been released yet.

Of course, the sheer size of the collection is a problem. The school's purchase won't comprise everything in Globe's arsenal. They'll be taking about 2/3 of the wood type and 1/2 of the metal cuts, and only some of it will be moved into active rotation in the school's print studio. Much of the rest will be put into storage, and there has also been talk of using some of the archive space at Johns Hopkins, since they're much better equipped for historic preservation.

Bob Cicero is apparently very excited that his collection is being reborn as an art medium. There are tentative plans for him to teach a history class with the materials.

In the meantime, Friends of Globe is still fighting the good fight and raising money to help Globe pay its March (and final) month's rent. They're selling their badass "Friends of Globe" t-shirts on Globe's Etsy site (the t-shirts that melted Fred Lazarus' heart!), and they have more shirts in the works. You can also buy reprints of some of Globe's most popular old-school show posters there:

The Friends themselves plan to spend the upcoming spring break closing the deal, choosing which pieces to take, and beginning what will be a long moving process.

This is a huge victory for the rebirth of letterpress as an artistic craft. I suspect that this will ultimately save more than just the Globe collection. Such a major recognition of the value of historic letterpress, from such a well-renowned institution, will do a lot to raise the profile and prestige of the medium. Who knows? This could be the start of a trend.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Big News from Boston

This is a guest post from Alexis, a friend of Gilah Press + Design. Thanks, Alexis!

What do you get when you combine dozens of linotype machines and letterpresses, thousands of drawers full of lead type, boxes and boxes of etchings and seals, and about a billion other historical and contemporary printmaking accouterments?

Depends on whom you ask. According to the City of Boston, you get a million-dollar-per-year expenditure, which is why the city recently decided to shut down its municipal print plant and auction off the contents. The equipment has been divided into 200 separate lots to be auctioned on February 24, and all of them can be viewed pre-auction here. There's everything from a four-color Heidelberg to a hand-operated platen press, a six-foot linotype machine to a lot of over a million sheets of paper. The most fun lot includes engraved likenesses of Boston public officials, a block declaring "The City of Boston" in Old English font, a cigar box full of official city seals, and thousands of lead type sets. There is also an antique phone booth, for some reason (sold separately).

According to printmaking enthusiasts, of course, the sum of these parts is something wonderful and golden and good, and it ought to be preserved. The big question is what the purchasers of these items will ultimately decide to do with them. Much of the equipment is still contemporary and has practical, industrial value, but a lot of it is outmoded as far as large-scale production is concerned and has value only as part of the small-press revival movement, as part of an antiques collection, or as scrap metal.

So are letterpress lovers going to claim this type and keep it in use, or will it ultimately be relegated to a museum or, worse, a foundry? When asked his opinion, former City Council president Lawrence S. DiCara, whose face is depicted in one of the engravings, summed it up thus: "I think I'm far too young to be considered a historical relic."

Friday, February 11, 2011

the cosgroves

We recently printed this stationery set for the Cosgroves, a young family in Baltimore. The design reflected both their interest in minimal compositions—with bright colors and strong contrast—as well as the warmth and importance of home. The half-tone is an image of their row house in Charles Village.

These were printed on 110lb Crane's Lettra Fluorescent White with a little neon ink to boost the 'pop' of the red. The large solid areas took a lot of ink and impression so a slower run was necessary for the paper to really take in the color and impact.

The amount of time the inked form is in contact with the paper (also known as the dwell) can change the look of the final print. A faster run will apply less ink to the form, and a lighter hit to the paper will result in a saltier look of large areas. And while saltiness is something we love about letterpress, some designs might require a little more coverage and time.