Letterpress Printing

Past, Present, Future

by Caroline Archer-Parré (Volume editor) James Mussell (Volume editor)
©2023 Edited Collection XXIV, 276 Pages
Series: Printing History and Culture, Volume 4


Letterpress Printing: Past, Present, Future brings together scholars, curators, collectors and printers to assess the current state of letterpress printing. It acknowledges the decline of letterpress as a commercial printing technique and considers the risks this poses for letterpress’s future. However, in describing the many uses to which letterpress is put and the diverse communities of printers who still work with it, the book celebrates the tenacity of letterpress as a process which continues to thrive despite such challenges. Letterpress Printing examines the continuing life of letterpress and applauds its revival through describing the circumstances in which it flourishes and the many ways it is now used. By setting this revival in the context of its ostensible decline, the book sets out the ways in which current practice draws upon and preserves the history of printing while taking it in new and unexpected directions.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Illustrations
  • List of Tables
  • Acknowledgements
  • Letterpress Aesthetics (Johanna Drucker)
  • Introduction: Letterpress Printing: Past, Present, Future (Caroline Archer-Parré and James Mussell)
  • Part I Letterpress in Transition
  • 1 Designers in the Composing Room: A Progressive Tale of Typographic Transgression (Catherine Dixon)
  • 2 A Tangible Space: Letterpress Printing within Artists’ Books and Small Publishing Practice (Angie Butler)
  • 3 An Education in Letterpress: Charting the History of Letterpress Education in the United Kingdom and Ireland (Alexander Cooper, Rose Gridneff and Andrew Haslam)
  • Part II Letterpress and Preservation
  • 4 Preserving Historically Correct Letterpress Printing in Theory and Practice (Patrick Goossens)
  • 5 Between Theory and Practice: Bringing Letterpress and Digital Together in Printing Museums (Alan Marshall)
  • Part III Letterpress’s Future Potential
  • 6 Inmediate Writing: Pavel Büchler and the Logic of Letterpress (Nick Thurston)
  • 7 Letterpress in Portugal: The Future of Design and Its Engagement with Past Printing Techniques (Pedro Amado, Vítor Quelhas and Catarina Silva)
  • 8 P22 Blox: Space-Age Letterpress Modularity (Richard Kegler)
  • 9 East Meets West: Merging Technology, Language and Culture (Sydney J. Shep and Ya-Wen Ho)
  • Bibliography
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index


This book originates from an AHRC-funded Research Network, Letterpress Printing: Past, Present, Future (AH/P013473/1). Between 2017 and 2018 the Network organised three workshops: ‘Historical Letterpress’ at Winterbourne House, University of Birmingham; ‘Using Letterpress’ at the National Print Museum, Dublin; ‘Letterpress in the Digital Age’, Bath Spa University; and a final conference, ‘Letterpress Printing: Past, Present, Future’, at the University of Leeds. Our contributors all took part in the network at one event or another and we are grateful to the AHRC for enabling such engaging and fruitful conversations.

The editors would like to acknowledge the support of Lee Hale and the staff at Winterbourne House; Carla Marrinan, Gretta Halpin-Dodd and the staff and volunteers at the National Print Museum; and Ian Gadd, Penny Grist, Tim Jollands, Tom Sowden and their students and colleagues at Bath Spa University. We want to thank the speakers at all of the events, but particularly the keynote speakers at the conference: Johanna Drucker, Will Hill and Dafi Khüne. Throughout the project we were supported by Pamela Rhodes, at the University of Leeds. We are particularly grateful for the work of our project administrators: Emma Trott, who oversaw the launch of the project and the first event, and Vic Clarke, who brilliantly steered the project through the remainder of the events and to a successful conclusion.

The Network was organised by the Centre for the Comparative History of Print (Centre CHoP) at the University of Leeds and the Centre for Printing History & Culture at Birmingham City University and the University of Birmingham. We are grateful for the support of our colleagues in both Centres. We also acknowledge the support of our respective institutions, particularly with regards the production of this book.

Finally, Lucy Melville, Group Publishing Director at Peter Lang, has been a supportive and encouraging guide through the publication process. We thank her and her team for seeing this project from manuscript into print.

Johanna Drucker

Letterpress Aesthetics

The current revival of interest in letterpress is often accompanied by a fetishisation of some of its aesthetic qualities. Reverent sighing takes place over the impression of the metal type in thick paper, the use of serif fonts and layouts with wide margins. An excess of respect for retro-conservatism in the grand-old-man tradition emerges without any awareness of its historical roots in the Euro-centric humanist revivals of the early twentieth century. Alternatively, a pleasure in neo-Dada free-for-all playing-with-type explodes, expressed in massively over-printed layers of inked letters and random images. But the connections between the conceptual aspects of letterpress’s aesthetics and the technological constraints that give it inherent qualities are not usually addressed in this process.

After all, letterpress is a fifteenth-century, western Renaissance technology whose modularisation of production provided a paradigm of early modern labour and economy. Its aesthetics are undergirded with technological features that have cultural implications. In the medieval format of the guild, workers were often responsible for the full lifecycle of a product. But in modern labour, tasks are broken into specialised skills and rationalised processes marked by discrete steps in production. Though manuscript production already divided illuminators from scribes and binders from either, emerging degrees of specialisation slotted print shop workers into increasingly distinct tasks (composing, proofing, printing, damping, inking and so on). But the modularity of letterpress is key to its aesthetics on an even more granular level: the specific properties of cast metal type.

One commonplace truism about printing needs to be addressed: the idea that the first letterpress printers were trying to imitate manuscripts. The similarities between manuscript and print in page composition – such as linear text blocks, proportions on the page and size/scale of the object to make it readable at a comfortable holding distance – belong to even ←xv | xvi→longer traditions than manuscript. Wax tablets, papyrus and parchment scrolls, even cuneiform tablets all shared these features for millennia. The use of black-letter founts as models for letterforms is merely an instance of appropriating what is already familiar and available. You use what you know. If letters based on pen-strokes provided a basis for metal casting in the fifteenth century, that is hardly stranger than the remediation of compass-and-straight-edge forms into photo-type and then digital founts in the twentieth century. The persistence of a particularly reduced and rigid linearity and quadrature in digital design is far more peculiar in its resistance to graphic possibility than the adoption of some manuscript features for letterpress half a millennium ago.


XXIV, 276
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2023 (March)
letterpress printing type Letterpress Printing Caroline Archer-Parré James Mussell
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2023. XXIV, 276 pp., 34 fig. b/w, 4 tables.

Biographical notes

Caroline Archer-Parré (Volume editor) James Mussell (Volume editor)

Caroline Archer-Parré is Professor of Typography, Co-director of the Centre for Printing History & Culture at Birmingham City University, and Chairman of the Baskerville Society. With an interest in typographic history from the eighteenth to twentieth centuries, Caroline has published widely. She is the author of three books, contributes to numerous journals and edited volumes, and writes regularly for the trade and academic press. James Mussell is currently Professor of Nineteenth-Century Print Cultures at the University of Leeds and Deputy Director of the Centre for the Comparative History of Print (Centre CHoP). He is the author of Science, Time, and Space in the Late Nineteenth-Century Periodical Press (2007) and The Nineteenth-Century Press in the Digital Age (2012). He is one of the editors of the Nineteenth-Century Serials Edition (2008; 2018), <http://www.ncse.ac.uk>, a pioneering digital resource, and the books W.T. Stead: Newspaper Revolutionary (2012) and A Pioneer of Connection: Recovering the Life and Work of Oliver Lodge (2020).


Title: Letterpress Printing