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Letterpress printing: Art medium or vocational job?

Letterpress printing has been on my mind a lot lately. I’ve been in love with it since I first attempted it in S250 when we had to typeset our name, kerned it out correctly using brasses and coppers, and then made a perfect print (okay, not so perfect because make-ready was an entirely new concept). I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever done. It combined the artistry that I had always loved with a standard output system. In translation, that meant that I was able to combine creativity with a utilitarian process. It was damn near magical to me!

After getting out of school I may have had, ahem, a rather snobbish perspective that letterpress printing was an art form only. To me it wasn’t something that was available to just anyone. Little did I know… What I didn’t consider is its completely humble beginnings. Just a few decades before, it was simply considered a vocational job, such as an electrician or welder. Not that there probably weren’t people using it for more creative endeavors, but it was regarded just like your desktop printer: It was a tool for outputting information.

I came across these information/training videos from 1956 and 1947 talking about the skills needed to run a letterpress machine. They’re truly interesting. But don’t be looking for an artist print to come flying off the press in these videos because you won’t be seeing one.

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