Editor's note: This is part two in a series about interrobang letterpress. Find the .
For centuries, letterpress was king. According to Michael Babcock, owner of in JP, it was popularized by Johannes Gutenberg in the mid-1400s and was the dominant form of printing until the mid-1900s.
Today, a mere half century later, it is almost non-existent except when being practiced as an art, a passion, or a consuming interest.
Its physical parts—lead and steel type, steel presses, beds, platens, gears and wheels—were assembled into accomplished engineered workings that ultimately came to fill large industrial buildings and small wooden ones in every city, town and hamlet throughout the entire industrialized world. There were tens of thousands of active letterpress presses. Today there are only a handful operating in the metro Boston area.
Babcock is himself consumed by letterpress printing. It is one of the abiding constants in his life.
The ability to print beautifully with a press is the culmination of a complex progression that requires extensive knowledge of a highly evolved mechanical system with its own language and thousands of moving parts, a kind of pre-computer computer programming, a body of knowledge not easily acquired and which sometimes seems could devolve into obscurity overnight.
"Most of the kids nowadays can't deal with the minutae that's involved" Babcock said. And as letterpress printers die, they are not being replaced.
Oddly enough, letterpress printing is almost intrinsically green by today's standards. In an email Babcock elaborated, "In sort, type is stored energy which is reused over and over, and when worn, can be easily melted and recast... Platepress (as opposed to letterpress) relies on petroleum and other resources from many disparate sources, for the plates themselves, to the black plastic bags for the unexposed plates, the warehousing of those materials, the shipping of the component parts to manufacture them, the manufacture of the polymer exposure units, etc etc ad nauseum."
And so the barefoot Babcock also mourns. He laments the loss of giant type makers, like D. Stempel AG, a German type foundry that once had hundreds of massive machines each dedicated to the production of a single "sort," a piece of hard type engraved with a single letter or mark in a particular font at a particular size.
These were the building blocks to a word, to a sentence, to billions of printed books. They were all for sale and everyone was buying.
Yet Babcock is a realist and he has bought most of his bread and butter over the years with money he earned as a graphic designer working on a Mac. He is self-consciously standing at the letterpress graveside hoping that there will not be a funeral.
Babcock names a handful of other letterpress printers, one in Watertown, a couple in Allston/Brighton, one in Cambridge, one in Somerville, another here or there. The LGNE's web site lists only 10 members and although they do seem to be connected in a healthy network, after listening to Babcock for a few hours it seems likely that in a few years the existence of an operating letterpress printing business will become even rarer.
Fortunately, there is continuing interest, especially among craft preservationists. Some colleges have added letterpress printing to their art departments. It is a real possibility that eventually only academic institutions and living museums will have the space and the money and the expertise to keep a press going.
Up until recently, Babcock worked with an apprentice who attended the Mass College of Art. He is interested in taking on others. He also accepts paying students.
Still, it is one thing to learn the art as an esoteric practice and another thing to operate a press as a viable, self-sustaining business. To that end he says that letterpress printing has to be "fetishized," become an end in itself. Although he knows that people get almost all of their information via electronic media, he holds out hope that they will also want to look long at true ink printed on fine paper by industrial age machines. He hopes to inspire people to pay the extra money for the unparalleled results.
Babcock hopes that the shrinking interest in his pursuit will stop declining in time to save it but he realizes that the commitment in time and space and sheer physical imposition might make it impossible for future generations, especially if it is not passed from one to the next; reviving it would be an enormous undertaking akin to raising the Titanic and rebuilding her.