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The Art and Craft of Letterpress Printing

The letterpress industry was synonymous with the word “printing” for 500 years after Johann Gutenberg cast his first piece of movable type. Until the 1950s, virtually all printed matter, whether high volume book production or ephemeral job printing work, was produced on letterpress equipment. Although machine composition of body text was introduced by the Linotype and Monotype companies in the late 1800’s, hand-set type remained the only way to create display copy, headlines and all other printed material.

Beginning in the late 1950s the explosive development of phototypography and offset lithography completely changed the nature of the printing industry. Foundry type was used solely for the creation of originals that could be pasted up and photographed, and the old letterpress equipment was relegated to a back room. As dramatic as this change was, however, it paled in comparison to the technological developments that followed at the end of the 20th century. Computerized typography and digital output systems once more revolutionized the graphic production process, and brought to an abrupt and inglorious end all commercial viability of metal type and letterpress printing.

Rebirth of art form

With the coming of the new millennium, however, an extraordinary rebirth has taken place, tracing its roots to the British private press tradition of the early 20th century, typified by William Morris’ Kelmscott Press, and the American Arts & Crafts movement, typified by Elbert Hubbard’s Roycroft Press. This latter-day renaissance has not reversed the inexorable march of production economics, but it has re-introduced to a new generation of artists, designers, craftspeople, avocational printers and fine presses the inherent beauty and quality of hand-set and hand-printed letterpress graphic arts. Some of the components of this quiet, late 20th century letterpress revival are:

Fine Presses

Whether internationally renown publishers such as Giovanni Mardersteig’s Officina Bodoni or Gabriel Rummonds’ Plain Wrapper Press, or less-heralded presses specializing in small limited editions, such as Carol Sturm’s Nadja or Robin Price’s workshop, these artists brought to a new generation of readers the unique attributes of fine letterpress design and production.

The Chappel Movement

In the 1950s, a scholar, philosopher and enthusiast named J. Ben Lieberman began to evangelize his belief that political freedom was inexorably intertwined with freedom of the press. He took this contention quite literally, believing that if every home had a printing press, freedom of speech could never be completely abridged. His enthusiasms coincided with the marketing efforts of companies such as Kelsey, Yale’s neighbor in Meriden, CT, which specialized in manufacturing and selling small letterpress equipment for the hobby printer. Leiberman and his followers established a network of independent, local groups of home printers, known as Chappels (following the nomenclature of the early printing guilds). Many of these associations survive and thrive to this day, with particularly active groups including the Abel Buell Connecticut Valley Chappel, and the Westchester Chappel.

The Small Press Movement

With the Beat Generation and the protest years of the 1960s came a new generation of authors and polemicists whose poems and prose were often rejected by mainstream commercial publishers. In order to reach a wider audience, many small ‘underground’ publishers sprung up, using the technology of the time, which was letterpress printing. Although the primary goal of these presses was not artistic, they too fed into the mix of the private press movement and added a vitality and urgency of their own.

The Gentleman’s Press

Perhaps the most direct descendants of Morris, Cobden-Sanderson, Emery Walker and C. H. St. John Hornby, and certainly the ones with the biggest influence on Yale’s Book Arts tradition, are the private presses established to print fine work at the pleasure of the proprietor, for the love of the art instead of for commerce. It has been Yale’s good fortune that many of these outstanding printers have been Yale alumni, and have supported Yale’s Book Arts program from its inception. While there have been dozens of such presses (including many owned by College Masters), perhaps the two best known proprietors were August Heckscher and Frank Altschul. The former, who inaugurated the Yale College Press tradition in 1937 with the donation of the Timothy Dwight Press, was a well-known patron of the arts whose Press at High Loft continued publishing up until his death in the 1990s. The latter, whose Overbrook Press was closely associated with the illustrations of T. M. Cleland, had a long history of involvement with Yale, beginning with the Overbrook publication of Pierson College – The First Ten Years, and ending with his bequest of the Overbrook type and presses to Yale.

Just a few of the other printers and presses who have been, or continue to be, associated with Yale are Sherman Foster Johnson (Bayberry Hill Press), John O. C. McCrillis (Penny Whistle Press), R. Raleigh D’Adamo (Cedar Cliff Press), and George D. Vail (Bethany Hill Press), Harry Scammell, Greer Allen, Roland Hoover and Howard Gralla.