The History of Print
Part One: Keeping The Spirit of Print Alive


Printing is the physical expression of ideas, concepts and dreams. The history of print is the story of a craft, a trade, an industry, and a way of life. It has sparked revolutions, spread the word of god, and titillated the masses. It has a rich and international history spanning , cultures continents and epochs, it has been used for artworks, pamphlets, books and newspapers for centuries. Over the last 40 years, however, nothing has escaped the digitisation process and within a generation, many felt that print as an art and industry had had its day. The new processes were faster, cleaner and more efficient, why press when you can push a button.

Words: Michelle Porter

Making our Mark - Primitive Printing

We have been making our mark since at least 3000bc when we pressed images into clay, stamping patterns onto cloth before the development and use of paper. Before the use of metal in printing, clay and wood were used and carved with great skill and exactitude, producing simple characters to complex and layered designs. Anything from sap, soot, animal blood & glue were used to produce seemingly primitive images. As simple as they may first appear, these images can only be described as the first human attempts at design work, they were not simply pretty patterns created by chance. Images had to be thought out before they were scraped or carved into the block, the fact that they were producing mirror images made things even more complex. Although traditional techniques produced striking images and are still used today by artists and illustrators, they began to wane as the demands of literacy grew across the globe.

Letterpress - The Word Made Flesh with Perspiration, Ink, and Muscle.

Before the introduction of the letterpress in the 15th Century, written communication was limited and time-consuming. Each page had to be carved individually onto a separate block of wood or painstakingly penned by cloistered monks. Block books were created, but these were usually limited to 50 pages. Due to the scarcity of some texts they were guarded in public places, chained up or locked in vaults. Knowledge was guarded by the few quite literally! It wasn't until the invention of the letterpress in the middle ages that the progress of written communication really started to take shape. In the 1400's however, Guttenberg invented something that had as much impact on the world as the invention of the world wide web hundreds of years later. The Guttenberg press worked by rolling ink over the raised surfaces of moveable hand-set block letters which were held within a wooden frame, this was then pressed against a sheet of paper . A trained goldsmith, he devised a way of casting moveable type. No longer would each phrase or sentence be freshly carved, but reusable metal characters could be arranged on a compositor stick and placed within the printing press to be inked. These characters could be used again and again enabling publishers to make multiple copies of identical text at a much faster rate than ever before.

The letterpress represented the perfect combination of human physical labour coming together with human ideas. Philosophies, stories, scientific discovery and history no longer had to be handed down by word of mouth. Letterpress printing represents the first step towards mass communication and the education and entertainment of the 'lower orders'. An example of which is the rise in popularity of saucy literature. Before letterpress, it was the preserve of the rich and handwritten manuscripts were jealously guarded by the few. The printing press enabled the wide circulation of erotic novels and memoirs, causing outrage amongst the upper classes. This concern also spread to the political arena where pamphlets during the French Revolution and the campaign for American Independence helped to mobilise the 'great unwashed.'

With the onset of the Industrial revolution and steam power came the invention of the rotary press . Coupled with the introduction of rolled paper that enabled a continuous feed, levels of printing production scaled new heights. The era of mass printing was born.

Mass Communication and the Rise and Fall of Live Ink

In 1476 William Claxton opened a print shop in Fleet St using the first Guttenberg press in the UK. Over the next four centuries, printing remained a physical endeavour but moved away from its craft roots to become a production line operation occupying vast factory style buildings. The street became the centre of British printing and in its heyday in the 1970s, 100,000 worked 24 hours a day in what was then known as Fleet St Village. An industrial scale operation with its own etymology and unique skill sets. It was dirty, noisy and dangerous, the air smelt of spirits and ink and the workers complained of black mucus in their nostrils. They wore giant ear defenders to protect themselves from the roar of the press and covered their hair with hats made from newspapers to protect it from ink and paper fly.

The End of Printing as a Form of Mass Communication

"There used to be a tradition in Fleet Street newspapers called "banging out". It involved an employee, on the day he retired after a life-time's stalwart service to his chosen rag, being walked by his colleagues through the presses in the print room. As he wandered towards his rendezvous with a carriage clock, the printers serenaded him by whacking the metal benches with their hammers, beating out a ceremonial slow-march to mark his departure." Jim White

The end of physical printing mirrored the fate of other industries, the human hand increasingly replaced by computer technology. Fewer bodies on the ground, greater efficiency, and fast drying ink. Print as a viable financial option, a vehicle for mass communication was dead. When the last machines on Fleet St. were shut down and the press moved to Wapping, it seemed as though the spirit of print had been extinguished. The ink had run dry.

'Letterpress has ceased to be of much commercial significance, and you could say it has gone the way of the sailing ship and the hand-loom. But like them letterpress has survived, reborn as a craft. It survives, and even flourishes modestly, because customers value qualities of letter-press that no other printing process can match and because letterpress printers love doing it.' Firefly Press

It is unlikely that we will ever return to the days of mass printing on factory floors but there has certainly been a rise in small run letterpress outfits producing high-quality prints for special occasions. Printing is a craft and a skill that is being kept alive by a band of dedicated, passionate artists, designers and craftspeople across the country. From high profile printers and typographers like Eric Speikrmann and Alan Kitching to small letterpress specialists like the Cotton Letterpress. There is something about the traditionally printed word that is stamped with integrity, imbued with more gravity. It is more difficult to throw away than a digital image, not so easily wiped out. The experience of this method is highly tactile, not just for those handling the material but for those producing it too. People want physicality in their life, to make things and to feel things that have been made with care. To make a mark, to feel the mark that has been made by another human hand. After all these years the medium is still relevant, but more importantly, artists are finding new ways with which to use old methods. The process is beautiful in itself. Human endeavour bringing the word, mind and spirit, together, an inky expression of a cerebral obsession. The fruits of our labour.

This is the first in a series of articles exploring the art of printing, showcasing the people who are keeping the spirit of print alive in the 21st Century.


Michelle Porter

Author: Michelle Porter

Michelle is an award winning writer and editor from London, now based in Lewes, East Sussex. She specialises in arts, culture and society and writes long form articles, content and literary non fiction. She is also the joint founder of the Small Story Cabaret which showcases new and emerging talent.

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