Metal and wood type, the cabinets designed to hold these blocky letters and numerals, and letterpresses themselves are among the pieces of hardware collected by fans of printing technology. These essential printmaking ingredients have changed relatively little since Johann Gutenberg invented the movable-type printing press sometime in the 1440s. For 500 years, raised-and-reversed letters were inked and pressed against a sheet of paper to create an impression, though the quality of the type and the means used to ink the paper definitely changed.
Early screw presses, similar to presses used in winemaking, were tightened by the printmaker, causing a flat board, or platen, to be forced from above against the framed type, or forme, waiting on another board below. The sheet of paper to be inked was sandwiched in between. At first these presses were made of wood, but timbers were eventually replaced by heavy metal, culminating in 1800 with Lord Stanhope’s all cast-iron press, which featured counterweights and a T-shape base. Philadelphia inventor George Clymer’s Columbian press, which featured a fulcrum making it easier for pressmen to do their work, as well as decorative eagle and snake on top, followed a decade or so later.
Other 19th-century printing presses of note include Peter Smith’s acorn-shape device and Samuel Rust’s Washington press, of which some 6,000 “Improved” units were manufactured by Richard Hoe of New York after purchasing the patent from Rust in 1835. Hoe also manufactured a smaller Stansbury press, as did the Cincinnati Type Foundry, another popular pre-Civil War printing-equipment company.
R. Hoe & Company was also an innovator, devising self-inking mechanisms for both Columbian and Washington presses in 1847 (in England, John Chidley patented similar mechanisms the same year). But all of these hand presses with flat beds were ultimately shoved aside in the commercial printing world for Friedrich Koenig’s cylinder press, which heralded the advent of mechanized printing machines that could push out previously unimagined copies of publications like newspapers.
At the opposite end of the productivity spectrum was the jobbing platen, a small, self-contained press used to print single sheets rather than books, magazines, and other publications that required folding and binding. Daniel Treadwell of Boston is generally credited with inventing the first powered platen, but in 1818, he built one that was driven by a foot treadle. Another Bostonian, Stephen Ruggles, made a small self inking press in 1839, and in 1851, he built a “card and billhead” press, which featured the characteristic vertical (rather than horizontal) bed of the platen jobber.
Ruggles gave his presses names like Engine and Diamond. A contemporary, George Phineas Gordon, made a card press whose fixed platen and hinged bed closed so quickly on each other, it was given the name Alligator. More successful was his 1856 improved Alligator, the design of which, Gordon claimed, came to him in a dream that featured Benjamin Franklin. Although he named it after the great Philadelphia patriot, the press was better known as the Gordon.
After World War II, letterpresses fell out of favor for lithographic printing presses. Although lithography had been around since the late 1700s, and was popularized 100 years later when chromolithography was all the rage, it wasn’t until the postwar period that lithography became competitive in price with letterpress techniques. This shift resulted in a flood of unwanted block type on the antiques market. Today, most block type, especially the larger wood pieces, are collected for their decorative appeal rather than their functionality.