Letterpress is an old craft, beginning with Gutenberg and surviving through the past several hundred years to the present day. The craft has not come through the centuries unchanged, however. From its position as the dominant printing technology, letterpress has been relegated to an art form practiced by few. That does not mean that letterpress is less significant. It only means that the purpose of letterpress is different.
The documentary “Pressing On: The Letterpress Film,” released in 2017, details the changes in the letterpress industry in the past 100 years and the state of letterpress printing today. But before we get into the significance of letterpress today, I’d like to explain a little bit about what letterpress is.
The method of printing in use today for large print runs is called offset printing. The process of offset printing involves casting a metal plate that is then used to put ink on the page in the desired fashion. In some ways, offset printing resembles the technology from before letterpress, when an entire sheet of words would be carved into a wooden slab. Letterpress revolutionized that process with movable type; individual letters could be swapped out for each other and reconfigured into endless combinations; there was no longer a need to carve a different wooden slab for each page of the book. Now, of course, technology is such that offset printing, and even digital printing, are cheaper and less time-consuming. But the letterpress community still exists, albeit in smaller form.
As “Pressing On” illustrates, letterpress has become an art form, a way for people who love playing with words to play with them in a more tangible way. Letterpress printing requires the printer to physically build each and every word, starting with the molten lead that will become the type. The printers in “Pressing On” describe letterpress printing as an “emotional” and “romantic” experience; certainly letterpress provides more sensory stimulation, from the concreteness of the letters to the rhythm of the press as it works.
Far removed from the conceptual artistry of words on a computer, letterpress printing employs words we can touch. The words on the two-dimensional page become three-dimensional words—an object unto themselves. And as an art-form, letterpress printing of today places more emphasis on the artists, the people who bring words into the world.
“Printing is a privilege,” said one printer in “Pressing On,” a theme that was repeated throughout the film. Letterpress printers hold a reverence for their craft; they know how important words are for humanity, and they treasure the deep, physical connection they have with the words. How much we could learn by imitating their respect for language.