Old but not lost: Art students see a future for antique printing press
L etterpresses went from heavy to light. Then, they were replaced altogether.
Now, words are everywhere. On every laptop and cellphone.
But a group of art students at Georgia College & State University see value in the past and a future for these old machines.
“It's vital to recognize the strides we've made—not only with technology, but with the press and art in general,” said senior art studio major Emma Grace Avery of Suwanee, Georgia. “There was a time when letterpresses were the only way to communicate and mass produce something. That was the only way you could get your information out quickly and affordably.”
A Chandler and Price machine from the late 1800s was purchased by the university a few years ago. In the summer, it got dusted, greased and put in Ina Dillard Russell Library’s upcoming book studio.
Now, it’s a visual reminder of the past and motivation for a new generation of artists.
“The tactile and time-honored methods of printing help us understand the digital age more fully,” said Jolene Cole, interim associate director of Instruction and Research Services and professor of library science. By acquiring this letterpress and others in the future, she hopes to “inspire individuals to engage with the past while shaping the future of printmaking.”
Cole brings students from the library class on “Book History” and the university’s new minor in Information Studies to see and use the vintage letterpress. It’s a reminder of a time when heavy-steel machinery like this was state-of-the-art.
Matt Forrest, interim chair of art, has a smaller Chandler and Price machine in his printshop. This fall, he launched a new course on letterpresses. Now, three of his students are researching the history, impact and future of these machines, first developed in 1040 A.D. China.
Moveable forms of type replaced ancient scribes—making reading more accessible to the masses.
History like this enthralled senior art major Emmaline Wellborn of Roswell, Georgia, who was first to make letterpresses her topic for independent study. She focused on different types of letterpresses, their capabilities and differences between models.
Soon Wellborn was joined by Avery and another studio art major—Emma Kate Leach of Covington, Georgia.
Avery did a survey of letterpress shops still operating in Georgia, finding about six. Leach studied the impact letterpresses had on education, politics and the arts in Georgia. Both students would like to teach art someday—Avery in elementary school and Leach in middle or high school.
The students created a website to display a timeline and results of their investigation. They’ll also present findings at the Undergraduate Humanities Symposium Nov. 10 at Georgia Southwestern State University in Americus, Georgia.
“The history of how the letterpress changed the world as we know it is really interesting,” Leach said. “It influenced literacy rates and helped the arts grow. Before, the only way to mass produce things was through handwriting and block printing. In England in the 1500s, the literacy rate was below 10%. It was a very different world. Only the very rich were able to read, write and have any kind of books.”
Recently, art students met with Clemens Bak, owner of Red Onion Press in Kennesaw. He told them all about the library’s Chandler and Price—its clamps, levers, spokes, flywheel and gears. He talked about its history and how it worked.
“You have to think of presses of this era as being the main technology for communication in the world back then,” Bak said. “There is nothing that was going on that did not involve the press. Think of it—computers, laptops, phones—everything that you have in this era was going through this machine.”
Avery said she enjoyed learning the nitty-gritty details of working a letterpress from Bak.
“There's more to discover and experiment with letterpress,” Avery said. “It's not something we need to throw away. It's something we need to spend more time on—to see how far we can push it, because now that it's not used as a necessity for information, we can really get creative with it and see where we can go.”
The group went on a recent fieldtrip to visit Megan Fowler, owner of Brown Parcel Press in Sparta. Avery did a summer internship there her sophomore year and was eager to share the hands-on experience with her peers.
Fowler demonstrated how to make embossed greeting cards using a Vandercook letterpress.
Avery loves the procedure and precise crispness of letterpress and printmaking. She gets lost in the process of it—first making sure the prep work is done. Then paper is cut to size and ink spread evenly to coat the screen.
“It’s such a lost art,” Avery said. “You can just get so zoned into what you're doing. You kind of go into a mind palace. You're in this process of making the work, tweaking little things or altering how the print turns out.”
“The fact you can create so many in such a short amount of time and have such similar results is incredible. You can't really get that with anything else,” she said.
Leach likes printmaking for its capacity for mass production too. She doesn’t want people to forget.
“The letterpress is still relevant today,” Leach said. “We're not using it now to print our handouts in class anymore. But it's still very important in the way it can be used for special events, education, the arts or anytime you want an event to have a feel of elegance.”
Forrest said it’s important to provide hands-on experiences like these for students. Recreating techniques and equipment used by historical printers gives them “a profound appreciation for the evolution of communication and dissemination of knowledge.”
Immersive experiences deepen their understanding of history and sharpen critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
“The goal of the letterpress studio is to preserve and celebrate the rich heritage of historical printing,” Forrest said. “The aim is to serve as a haven for creativity, education and artistic exploration—fostering a deep appreciation for the art of printmaking and the history of the book.”