Inking History

Invented around 1440, the Letterpress was instrumental in automating the sharing of communication through efficient and economical duplication of words on a page. Although the Chinese had been printing since 1040AD it was this new form of presswork that gradually replaced scribes and illuminators as the most common form of printing. During the course of the next few hundred years presses were upgraded from wood to metal. The manual feeding and pressing of one paper sheet at a time was replaced by a semi-automated process. During the early 1900’s and the industrial era, printing presses were further mechanised and automated with inking rollers and multiple sheet feeding paper capability. It was a grand time for print. With the ink still wet, newspapers were rolling out of printeries daily. Periodicals were distributed locally, and many regions of the world were stocked with copies of books, cards and all the tangible delights of paper and printed materials.

In less than 100 years, those same fully automated 20th century letter presses were superseded by the introduction and adoption of “offset printing”. By the 1950’s these faster and relatively easier machines were contributing to the demise of the letterpress skillset and artform. Setting lead type by hand was replaced by mechanical platemaking, the human touch was all but lost. With the advent of computers in the 1970’s, the printing industry as a whole was on the downturn and had to make ready to compete. The technology of the day and the ability to disseminate general information with speed, greater economy and broad reach impacted the reliance of paper-based communication. Where printing was once the only way to reliably and consistently share news to a large audience, it now had a competitor and early adopters would say a superior one at that. The reduction in printing demand meant that many older presses were sold off and whole firms went out of business as the work dried up. Such is the nature of progress. Yet another example of an established industry disrupted by a game changing idea or advancement. Fortunately, the craft of letterpress still exists today as some of those old machines were salvaged and the skills have been passed down through artisans and lovers of print. We actively chose to partner with a local artisan who carefully handled our journal covers on her own press. It’s a beautiful 1960’s Heidelberg Windmill Platen. Our passion for supporting creative women was front of mind when we created the concept and made the choice to support an ancient craft. You can read more about her story very soon. In the meantime, continue reading to learn how women have changed the rules in publishing in under one hundred years.

Regardless of machinery or mode of transmission, one publishing issue remains. It relates to diversity. Who are the majority of people writing content and who holds the power to decide what to print or upload? History documents that women (as well as minority groups) had limited access to education and were denied access to learning to read and write. As time moved on women also experienced limited employment opportunities outside the home due to laws of the time and the practical responsibility of the majority of child rearing. These factors have limited the publishing of female authors and it can be assumed that society has not had access to the breadth of female storytelling, opinion and voice. We have suffered through a narrow view of womanhood. The research, the writing and the publishing of feminine perspective through time has been censored. In the US, women were legally restricted from becoming publishers until the late 19th century and it was usually after the death of a husband that they took up the role of running the business. The good news is that from the early 20th century there is evidence that women took up publishing roles with fervour and were some of the first to break major news of wars, political decisions and had greater opportunities to publish stories of life in general from a different perspective. These pioneering women had the courage to step outside of societal norms and author, as well as print, many important works. Women like Anaïs Nin at the age of 36, after fleeing Paris for New York at the onset of World War II, taught herself how to use a letterpress and published her own work. These are uncensored and fearlessly feminine diaries. Look her up if you haven’t already. Women continue to hold many leadership roles in large and small publishing houses worldwide and, whilst it is true that traditional publishing still favours male authors and most literary awards are won by men, the lucrative self-publishing market is currently fed by a majority of female authors. There is a market and an appetite for complex and unique stories told by women. This new breed of female authors and publishers are breaking glass ceilings and making money by responding to a hungry market. No longer is it about who you know in the club, it’s how you write and your skills that earn you the readers. Self-publishing is a game changer and a leveller. Society will benefit from stories from female authors and women will continue to experience a shift in power through publishing in general.

We say thank you to the women who rolled up their sleeves and inked up unapologetic and authentic female stories. To the women who were and still are at the forefront of decision making when it comes to publishing. Before we get too carried away, the internet on the surface, may be seen as an equaliser in regard to sharing and accessing diverse content authored by both genders, though let’s be wise to the fact it is another publishing platform created with censorship and sentiment established, in the majority, by men. Even in the 70’s the frameworks underpinning technology were built with an overwhelming male gaze through the periscope. History shows that it took hundreds of years to shift the balance of power in print and publishing, let’s hope it doesn’t take as long to represent the real needs, opinions and authentic stories of women through technology. Seems the tech industry moves with greater speed but let’s invite and then listen to more women at the decision-making table guys.

Also, don’t forget that print remains a viable transmission of information. It turns out that Millennials love their reading and in particular printed materials – who knew?

If you love supporting artisans who run letterpresses and reading complex, authentic work authored by women then you might want to purchase a copy of our journal – pre-register here. Thanks kindly for the support.