Letterpress: Where Words Become Tangible

With society completely entranced by the digital age and online lives, there is something refreshing about looking backwards and returning to the mechanical, manual, human aspects of daily life. People love to work with their hands; they gain great satisfaction from working outdoors in a light rain and getting their hands dirty in the garden. They love pricking their fingers in hand-sewing if it means they can truly say, “I embroidered this myself!” When it comes to books, people are no different. Certainly, it may be more convenient to find a book online; Kindle edition textbooks are far more economical, and a person can carry a hundred libraries with them on one laptop. If that’s the case, though, why are so many hobbyists taking a step into the past and salvaging letterpresses? I think it relates back to humanity’s irrepressible desire to create, not on a glowing computer screen, but with their very own hands. This idea is embodied in the 2017 release of a new documentary, “Pressing On: The Letterpress Film.”

As a tangible art form, printing books by letterpress carries a high appeal to anyone with an interest in literature, words, or visual arts in general. Printers (by that term, I mean people, not the ink-eating fiends we deal with in modern offices) lay out each individual word, letter by letter. To do so, they have to collect metal or wooden letter fonts from their vast array of storage drawers, physically select the type, and assemble it piece by piece in a press. Spacing is created by adding blank blocks, also assembled by hand. Finite letterpresses are run manually to create a finite, touchable product. Even if two letterpresses side-by-side repeat the same image, each print will retain a unique look thanks to the variety in the type: blocks get scratched and dented from use, and each defect adds to the final product. When the type is inked, each letter makes its own impression in the paper, and on its future viewers. 

Letterpresses speak to a person’s fingers, with the cool metal of the letters smooth in their hands as they—literally—piece together a row of words to print. The machines touch a person’s ears with their clicking sound and steady movement, while appealing to the nose with a thick scent of ink or grease. Visually, they give more variety to the eye with the uniqueness of each letter and printing. But most of all, the manual labor involved in printing engages the mind. Sitting at a computer for hours typing may produce aesthetically pleasing work, but a keyboard and screen do not engage someone’s senses of smell or hearing. The keyboard quickly becomes mundane to the delicate touch of a hand, and the neck and back begin to ache after craning over the same screen in the same position for hour upon hour upon hour. In manual printing, the entire person is engaged, physically, in all the work involved, and mentally, in the beautiful letters and pages they reproduce. Pressing On: The Letterpress Film was a wonderful tribute to stepping back into the past to preserve a lost, touchable, mechanical art for the future. 

Photo Credit: “Pressing On: The Letterpress Film.” Image taken from rogersmovienation.com. https://rogersmovienation.com/2018/06/14/documentary-review-pressing-on-the-letterpress-film/

1 thought on “Letterpress: Where Words Become Tangible”

  1. I like that you mention how doing something physical can be more engaging for the mind and for other senses of the body. I wonder if the mental and sense engagement just on its own could cause an author to create something more meaningful or if that stimulation would be too distracting – I know that it would for someone like me.

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