‘Letterpress: Victorian Technology in the Twenty-First Century’, Dr Kelsey Jackson Williams

The print world underwent a silent revolution in the latter part of the twentieth century.  New techniques such as offset lithography and laser printing came to dominate the publishing industry, ringing the death knell for the last of the iron printing presses.  Those presses, confined by the 1970s to high street print shops and the backrooms of wedding stationers, had dominated the printing process for the previous two hundred years and many differed only slightly from the technology developed by Gutenberg and his contemporaries.  When they finally went under, they did so quietly: chucked in skips, donated to museums, repurposed for art colleges, or left to gather dust in the garages and sheds of retired printers.

Now, letterpress – as the traditional method of printing is called – is enjoying something of a revival.  A quick glance at Etsy reveals a host of home businesses selling the products of their handpresses, while fine press printing is increasingly in demand, and artists and graphic designers are more and more looking back for inspiration to the once-neglected technology of last generation.  Academics have also begun paying attention to letterpress, as initiatives such as the major AHRC-funded project, Letterpress Printing: Past, Present, and Future amply attest.

Our Columbian press.

For those of us trying to pick up the pieces of a trade which has almost vanished over the past forty years, the challenges are many, but so are the rewards.  When I co-founded the Pathfoot Press as the letterpress arm of the University of Stirling in 2016 I found myself inheriting, amongst other equipment, a nineteenth-century Columbian press (formerly used by the Stirling Bibliographical Society and one of the gems of the iron press tradition) and it’s that press I want to write a bit about today.  The Columbian was invented in 1813 by the American engineer George Clymer (hence the eagle so prominent in the picture), but enjoyed a rather greater popularity in Europe.  Ours was made in the mid-nineteenth-century by the Edinburgh founders D & J Greig, who produced the majority of Scottish Columbians in their day.

A hundred-odd years later, the Columbian at Stirling continues to get the job done.  Those of us at the Pathfoot Press have used it both for official university commissions and for our own artistic and literary productions as we’ve gotten it up and running over the past year.  But it’s also showing its age.  The body is cracked in a couple of places, the wooden handle has been worn and grooved by centuries of hands, and the leather strap which roles the platen in and out of the press is badly in need of adjustment.  We should be able to source the repairs we need, but it’s moment like this that make me aware of how fragile the letterpress revival really is.  Worldwide, there are less than a handful of firms like Harry Rochat’s in London which produce new iron presses and the parts to repair old ones; otherwise, it’s make do and mend for as long as we can.

An early project of ours locked up in its formes and ready to print.

As such, you could say that we exist in the penumbra of a vanishing industry, but I’m inclined to be more optimistic.  For me, the resurrection of letterpress and the renewed public desire for goods produced by nineteenth-century methods on nineteenth-century machines is part of a larger cultural fascination with the handmade brought out about by the ubiquity of the digital, the 3D-printed, the easily replicated, and the plasticene.  Paradoxically, as ever easier methods of (re)production are developed, we come to appreciate the older, laborious methods that much more.  That’s one of the reasons why I find it so worthwhile to print with our Columbian – we’re creating things that people value and take delight in, which is worth many hours of frustration, inky fingers, and aching shoulders.

Demonstrating the press at a university open day.

And we’re only just beginning.  This year has seen the Pathfoot Press finding its feet, as we become familiar with our machinery, improve our craft, and undertake a few tentative commissions.  We’ll be going into 2018 with two lead printers (myself and Dr Dawn Hollis), our kindly bosses at the Stirling Art Collection (Sarah Bromage and Jane Cameron), two fantastic and dedicated interns, and ambitions to do much, much more.  Already, we’ve been giving outreach and educational sessions for everyone from Stirling alumni to undergraduates to local art teachers and we’ll be expanding this part of our work as we go forward, as well as making plans for ever more ambitious printing projects.

A broadside commissioned by Innerpeffray Library and printed on our Columbian.

So, if you like the idea of a Victorian (or at least early twentieth-century) print shop, come and see us!  We’re on Twitter @PathfootPress and our new website should be going live in the next month or two.  While our Columbian’s days as an old-fashioned jobbing press are long over, I very much hope and believe that its days as a tool for fine press printing, for teaching, and for outreach are only just beginning.

Dr Kelsey Jackson Williams is a lecturer in early modern literature at the University of Stirling with research interests in the culture of early modern northern Europe, especially Scotland. He is one of the lead printers at Stirling’s new centre for letterpress learning and teaching.

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