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!