LETTERPRESS PRINTING: A RICH HISTORY OF REVOLUTION AND ARTISTRY
Hello friends! This is Belanna, a member of the retail and wholesale teams. I’m here to take a deep-dive into letterpress printing—both here at Noteworthy and its broader history.
Letterpress is such a central part of Noteworthy’s identity, which is apparent the moment you walk through the door. The shop is often filled with the sound of one of our three, mid-century Heidelberg presses, and our shelves are stocked with colorful die-cut postcards, letterpress printed greeting cards, and art prints. But there is something beyond the hum of the machines, beyond the cards we hold in our hands, that makes letterpress so special and important today.
So what is letterpress? Letterpress printing is a technique that involves pressing paper directly against a raised, inked form. When paper is run through our machines, the end result is a product that has an inked impression that you can feel on the surface of the paper; the pattern or design on the printing plate creates the texture.
The origins of letterpress printing stretch back to around 1040 CE, when movable type developed in China. From there, the technique developed further in Korea where printers began making movable type out of metal. In the West, Johannes Gutenberg invented his own movable type and the printing press in the 1450s, where it spread quickly and rose in popularity as its usefulness for sharing ideas became clear. Early presses were often run by families, with men printing and casting type while women bound the material or finished the newly cast type.*
Today it is far more common, affordable, and safe (most metal type was made out of lead) to use photopolymer plates. The plates have a sticky back and adhere to an aluminum base. The base is secured to the press in a chase the same way type and furniture would be secured using quoins that expand to hold the form in place against the outer walls of the chase. The paper is then mechanically passed through the press from the feed tray to the delivery tray, stopping to be pressed against the photopolymer press or form.
I spoke to Robin Graf, our lead printer, about the history of letterpress. “Printing has always been revolutionary,” she states. While it was typically thought of as a male-dominated field, the earliest documented printers were actually nuns, whose religious status allowed them this level of education and training. During the Industrial Revolution in 1869, the Women’s Typographical Union was formed in New York City and the group used presses to publish literature on women’s rights. “Printing is inherently progressive,” Robin continued. Letterpress is a social movement— as literature became more readily available, more people learned to read. As more people read, more people became educated.
When co-owner Taylor Valliant purchased her first Vandercook Press in 2005, she turned to the letterpress community to understand how the machine worked and how to fix and replace its parts. She attended several workshops and began establishing connections that would eventually lead her to opening Noteworthy Paper & Press with Amy Dolan in 2008. The story of Noteworthy is the story of taking steps, even when the path ahead is foggy. It is the story of community, trust, and learning. What became clear to Taylor and Amy as they grew their business was that change requires work and support.
The revolutionary nature of printing remains strong today. Through the pandemic, we printed “Put Your Money Where Your Heart Is” posters to help support small businesses in Missoula. And with the movement to confront systemic racism in America, we have also printed “No Hate In Our State” posters. Not only are posters an effective way to spread information, but their proceeds as pieces of art can fund organizations that are central to movements.
During the summer of 2020, Noteworthy printed posters to support Black Lives Matter, and all of the proceeds were donated to the Montana Racial Equity Project and Campaign Zero. Other printers, such as Printmakers Against Racism, donate directly to “mutual aid groups and organizations fighting for racial justice.”
While a lot of early letterpress work consisted of text that communicated messages, at Noteworthy we see letterpress as an art. Robin describes letterpress as “making fine art and repeating it by hand.” Every print is an original, and at every step there are human hands involved. The greeting cards for our wholesale line are designed by owner Taylor Valliant and Adrienne Langer, Noteworthy’s Product Designer, who use their skills as illustrators to create designs that will make their way through to the presses. Our Custom team creates one of a kind wedding invitations and stationery in much of the same manner.
During a conversation with Taylor, she explained the design process for letterpress to me: “For the most part,” she began, “you don’t have gradients of colors. You are working with a limited palette, and you are working with as many layers of color as the paper can take.” Each plate that is made for a design will be inked with one color, so a card goes through the press one time for each color that is needed. After it has been run through the press, the different plates and colors piece together the final image, like a puzzle. Ideally, there are a total of two to three colors to keep the paper pristine when the product is finished.
Letterpress is a rigid art form, from the metal of the machines to the guidelines that must be followed to achieve straight lines and perfect spacing. While the artform is rigid, the possibilities are seemingly endless and the techniques are rather flexible, with products ranging in textures, colors, and effects. Once these obstacles are conquered and a design is crafted, the plates are made and the press operator begins printing. All of our colors are hand-mixed, and then applied by hand to the machine for printing. While the machine does the heavy lifting, the press-woman attends to the machine at all times. Once the printing is done, the cards are trimmed in-shop on an industrial paper cutter.
Letterpress products are artisan goods, and Noteworthy is intent on high quality production. “It’s all about creating a beautiful product,” Adrienne stated. Just as the design on a plate creates the texture on a card, people create texture in the world around us. The creation of artisan goods stands firmly in contrast to the growing culture of hyperconsumerism and homogenization. Everything from the machines we use to our final products are made to be held on to and admired; every individual piece is unique. “Paper products represent the tactile and the physical,” Taylor noted. “They represent what’s physical about our humanity,” and they represent our feelings in a physical form.
When you receive a card from someone, only the truly special ones get tucked away. There is an act of preservation that is inherent in creating artisan paper goods. The goal is always to express a message, a feeling, a moment in time, and an art. Our vision is that in 70 years, someone can find a Noteworthy card stashed away in a shoe box somewhere and feel what people mean to each other. Time is one of the most important things that we have, and giving someone the right card is how we can hold on to it.
Adrienne Langer was born and raised in Philadelphia, where she attended the University of the Arts and received a BFA in Illustration in 2009. She lived in Philly until 2013, when she and her husband drove across the country with their three cats to move to beautiful Missoula, Montana. She works full-time as a designer for us at Noteworthy Paper & Press and also does a variety of freelance work-- from private commissions to local event posters, book covers, editorial illustrations, and more! Her work is heavily influenced by her surroundings with a recent focus on the gorgeous Montana landscape and also from the different places she's traveled. Adrienne especially enjoys the challenge of painting plants and animals.