Letterpress printing: past, present, future

Letterpress Printing: Past, Present, Future was an AHRC-funded Research Network that explored the survival of historical printing equipment and how it is used today. 

letters and number setting for printing press


Research background

The network brought together scholars, museum professionals, printers, and other interested people to explore the legacy of historical presses and type – what survives and where; its condition – as well as what it has to teach us, both about the textual and typographical cultures of the past, as well as those of today.

Research aims 

During the twentieth century, printing changed from a craft-based to a technology-led process. The composing room moved from hand- to machine composition, from photo-setting to digital; while the press room shifted from letterpress to off-set lithography and latterly digital methods of production. Technical progress, however, failed to completely usurp traditional printing and today there is a marked increase in those engaged with older methods of production, whether for pleasure, profit, or scholarship.

For example, when the printing industry jettisoned letterpress in favour of contemporary technology, some of the equipment survived and was appropriated by artists as tools for creativity, or salvaged by museums as relics of the past. Some of this historic equipment was requisitioned by a new generation of printers keen to satisfy market demands for traditional printing and often used in tandem with contemporary techniques.

 Similarly, housed in the basement of the School of English at the University of Leeds, there is a range of letterpress machines and moveable type. Originally used to teach bibliography, this facility fell out of use as academic fashions changed. Today it has been resurrected by a new generation of scholars curious to practice craft techniques in order to enhance their understanding of the past.

This project aimed to find out who is currently using letterpress and why, what is its future, and how can it develop in ways not envisaged by its original craftsmen.

Research methods

We carried out our investigations in to letterpress printing through presentations, discussions and practical applications at four events, each with a specific focus.

1 - The state of historical letterpress, University of Birmingham

This workshop explores the survival and use of historical printing presses and type.  It considers how and why equipment has survived, as well as the state in which it can often be found.  We are interested in what historical equipment and practices have to teach us, both about the print cultures of the past and our own today.  We also want to know who the audiences are for this material, the interests they might have, and how we might collaborate more effectively.

2 - Using letterpress, National Print Museum

This workshop explored how historical printing presses and type are currently used in research, practice, and teaching and considered further ways in which they could be used.  We discussed what is distinctive about working with historical equipment and how historical print practices might inform our approach to textual, typographical and visual culture today.

3 - Letterpress in the digital age, Bath Spa University

Print and digital are often considered as antagonists, with the former imperilled by the latter. Yet the relationship between the two technologies of storage and reproduction is more complex than this. This workshop, examined the interconnected histories of print and digital technologies, and considers how each can help us learn about the other.

4 - Final Conference: Letterpress printing, past, present and future

Featuring key note lectures by Johanna Drucker, Will Hill, and Dafi Kühne, this this two-day conference explored the survival, legacy and relevance of letterpress printing in the digital era.

Reseatch outcomes 

One outcome of the project has been to create a directory of people working with Letterpress. Most of those involved are based in Britain and Ireland, but the network is comprised of people from all over the world. Another, outcome is the publication of an edited volume, Letterpress printing: past, present and future, edited by Caroline Archer-Parre and James Mussell, to be published by Peter Lang Ltd., 2021.