Letterpress and Project Gutenberg

These shallow, lidless boxes often arrive at QBO already filled with tiny displays – thimbles, figurines, Crackerjack prizes or whatever. The compartments make appealing shadowboxes but the metal handle gives a clue to the boxes’ original purpose – they’re Antique Letterpress Type Printer’s Cabinet Drawers. Most drawers we get are wood, but since letterpress printing was used well into the 20th century, there were metal letterpress type printer’s cabinets made, too.

And here from a separate QBO sale is the moveable type stored in those compartments. (A word of warning: many contain lead so kids shouldn’t play with them.) Compare the “e”s – different fonts! The letters are backwards because once typeface was arranged on the “bed” or “chase” of the press into words that created sentences that made a page of text, they were coated with oil-based ink. Paper was then pressed onto the type and when peeled off, the resulting print was correctly oriented. The groove at the bottom of each block kept them aligned and yes, blank blocks were used to keep the spaces between words. 

Print shops had multiples of common letters and fewer of less-frequently used ones. And if you’ve ever wondered where the terms “UPPERCASE” and “lowercase” come from, the more frequently used lowercase letters were stored in larger, lower drawers (or cases) nearer to the typesetter whose job it was to set the pages. The less frequently used UPPERCASE letters were stored in the upper (higher) case, a somewhat less convenient spot for the typesetter to reach. Really! Prior to printers adopting this word usage, large uppercase letters were called majuscules and little lowercase letters were called minuscules. Again, really! 

To include illustrations, logos and graphics on a page, etched copper or brass plates had to be inserted in with the type. This commemorative plaque from our last sale shows off a collection of these custom-made printing plates with brand names such as Kenmore, Sears, Craftsman and Allstate rendered in trademarked, brand-specific fonts, along with graphic stars, bells and an arrow.

And last but not least, from another sale, please admire this handsome steer: his caption has been obliterated, but the illustrator’s name, “W.E. Burke,” is just visible.

Movable type printing with ceramic blocks was invented in China in 1040 by Bi Sheng, but the letterpress printing invented independently in Germany by Johannes Gutenberg was the one to sweep the world. It took him over a decade to perfect his process but the first ever mass-produced bible, the Gutenberg Bible, revolutionized the world in 1455. Before that, every page of every book had to be hand-carved on wood print blocks. And before woodblock printing, every book, pamphlet and document had to be handwritten by monks or professional scribes.

Gutenberg’s moveable type could be quickly set and printed, then rearranged and reused infinitely, increasing print speeds exponentially and facilitating an explosion of ideas across Europe. Gutenberg is regarded as one of the most important inventors in human history and the first internet archive is named Project Gutenberg in his honor. And, just as cars did not entirely replace horses, modern offset printing has not entirely replaced letterpress; Martha Stewart created a new demand for fine printed wedding invitations and now there are colleges and arts organizations teaching artisan letterpress, Evergreen State College in Washington being one. Want to see letterpress in action? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cSFQVvPsjOc