The Art of the Printing Press

Text by Gallery Attendant, Rachael C Bible

Print by Winslow Homer

The first printing press with moveable type was invented between 1041 and 1048 in China by printer Bi Sheng. Sheng experimented with both wood and ceramic, but ceramic types very quickly became the preferred medium as wood block printing often showed the woodgrain in the final printed product. The first metal movable type presses showed up during the 1100s in Eastern Asia, and it was not until 1450 that Johannes Gutenberg invented the mechanical moving type printing press in Germany. For the first time in Europe, books could be mass produced in the language of the people. The use of printing presses became so strongly associated with the quick distribution of information to the masses that the new branch of media still retains “the press” as its moniker.

The mechanical printing press easily fed into this charged social climate and began what scholars call the “democratization of knowledge.” This new ideal meant that knowledge of current events, science, religion, and even literacy itself, was no longer restricted to members of the upper classes. Books and pamphlets containing radical ideas that sometimes went against those in political or religious power could be distributed to the public with ease. For example, in Western Europe the printing press was at the heart of the schism between the Catholic Church and the Protestant Reformation in October of 1517. Martin Luther’s “Ninety-Five Theses” were printed and spread throughout Germany within two weeks of their release. They then reached an even wider audience and spread throughout Europe by December, 1517. Without the printing press, it is highly unlikely that the debate would have spread past the clergy to the public.

During the Industrial Revolution, the printing press was further mechanized, and printing moved away from an industry passed down from master to apprentice over many years of training. The use of printing presses has now moved away from aiding in the rapid dissemination of current events or radical ideas. However, there has been a resurgence in seeing pre-industrial printing presses (letterpress printing) as an art form. This revival has prompted colleges, museums, and art institutes to offer workshops and courses in the art of using Victorian (and sometimes older) printing technology.

In the mid-1800s, electrotyping was incorporated into newspaper publishing. This process allowed artists to make multiple exact copies of their illustrations that could then be incorporated directly into the printing press with the typeset. Our current traveling exhibition from the Syracuse University Art Galleries includes illustrations by Winslow Homer, published in newspapers such as Harper’s Weekly between 1857 to 1875.  Homer left publishing to focus solely on his painting shortly after this time. Newspaper illustrations were vital to help transmitting information to the American public about the western frontier. The vast majority of Americans could not afford to travel west, but they were much more likely to have access to newspapers. The illustrations brought current events to life in a way that nothing else could accomplish at that time.

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