Letterpress printing, like many traditional crafts, didn’t die when technological advances supplanted much of its former utility. In fact, schools and universities like MTSU continue to teach students how to use “old-style” presses and movable type.
Collections: Dimensional and Artists’ Books; Warden Memorial Equine; Early Tennessee Imprints; Distilling, Fermenting, and Brewing; General
Since letterpress, or some variant thereof, remained the dominant printing technology well into the 19th century, all our collections contain letterpress printed items. The small selection in these cases is intended to highlight a few features characteristic of letterpress and demonstrate its versatility and beauty.
THE DUTY OF MINISTERS OF THE GOSPEL
James H. Otey
Nashville, Tennessee. 1837
In the young United States, printers and their presses literally followed people as they fanned out across the vastness of the land. Newspapers, legal documents, government proceedings, and religious texts were all disseminated via letterpress printers, most of them working in small, family run businesses. S. Nye & Co., active in Nashville from 1831 to 1840, was a typical frontier operation, printing pamphlets like this one along with other speeches, sermons, legislative reports, and public acts.
THE PRACTICE OF PRINTING
Ralph W. Polk
Peoria, Illinois. 1926
Handbooks for shop use were essential tools for any printing press operation. This well-used early 20th century illustrated printing manual uses clear, precise directions to outline all the steps necessary to set type, prepare the press, design, and produce business stationery, advertisements, titlepages, and, of course, books. Many of the actions described, particularly those applying to setting type, changed little from one century to the next.
E. J. Lance
Illustrations and embellishments have since the 15th century been part of the printing process. Lance’s book on hops demonstrates two methods of incorporating images into texts. The lithographed map towards the front of the book has been glued between two trimmed leaves, left blank for this purpose. On page 125, a woodcut was integrated into the type and printed at the same time as the text.
Edna Beilenson organized a group of women letterpress printers to create books. Their first joint venture is this work consisting of 31 signatures, each contributed by a different member who selected her own paper, type font, design, and content to feature. The book is part of our Dimensional and Artists’ Books collection but is itself a collection of women’s contribution to the art of printing.
Nashville, Tennessee. 1855
Printing from individually set pieces of type had some drawbacks. The type pieces, leading, furniture, and chases used to create a forme of type couldn’t be used for other jobs until the print run was finished. However, casting a solid metal plate from a mold taken from the forme of type—known as stereotyping—allowed type to be re-distributed quickly and re-used, and made it easier to store set-up type. Creating multiple stereos from the same type forme allowed multiple copies of handbills or advertisements to be printed on the same piece of paper or the same text printed on multiple presses at the same time. By the middle of the 19th century, when this book was produced, stereotyping was common.
San Francisco, California. 2012
The 20th century brought transformative changes to printing processes including the use of offset printing and photoengraving, both of which support high volume and high quality. However, letterpress technology is still prized for its artisanal aspects and is well suited to printing limited editions and specialized ephemera like invitations and cards. Many letterpress printed books like this one have a colophon at the end of the book which lists the type of font and paper used, as well as information about the press.