The Anonymous Widower

Letterpress Rules OK

This is an older post, that I have re-dated and brought up to date.
My father was a printer.  And he was all letterpress. He would have used machines like this Original Heidelberg, although his two were probably older.

Original Heidelberg

Original Heidelberg

Letterpress printing with movable type is one of the classic technologies that was invented in the Middle Ages by Johannes Gutenberg.

Movable Type

Movable Type

I spent most of my childhood in that printing works in Wood Green.  I used to set the type for all sorts of letterheads, posters and brochures, but perhaps my biggest claim to fame, is that I used to do all of the handbills for the Dunlop tennis tournaments, that were held all over the UK in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Sadly, I do not have one of those handbills.  If anybody has one, I’d love a photocopy. I’ve searched for years for one, but none exist.  Even the archivist, who wrote the history of Dunlop, knows nothing about the tournaments and couldn’t find any reference to them.

I also learned to read and write with poster letters.  These are of course backwards and you’d think that it would have caused me to have some sort of reading and writing problem.  I suppose it may be one of the reasons for my atrocious handwriting in that I learned that printing, computers or typing is much better from an early age, but it did give me a strong mental alacrity in turning images through 180 degrees.

This involvement in letterpress also left me with some habits and pedantic actions.

For instance, I always refer to exclamation marks as shrieks, which I have inherited from my father.

I’m also very pedantic about spelling and some aspect of structure like apostrophes and plurals. I spell words with the proper use of ae and oe for instance. I spell archaeology with the diphthong and not as archeology.  The difference is explained here.

The one thing I don’t seem to have inherited is my father’s good handwriting.

My father also had one of the oldest proofing presses, I’ve ever seen, but sadly there are no images of it. Mpst old ones you see tend to be Columbias made in the UNited States.

Proofing Press

Proofing Press

This one is from about 1850 and was at least fifty years younger than my father’s.  His probably ended up in a scrapyard, when a museum would have been a better bet.  Printing museums are rather thin on the ground and there isn’t even one in Heidelberg!  Although I did find a whole section in a museum in Belarus.


Wartime Printing in Belarus

My father’s letterpress business died.

Offset litho technology was coming in and because of the bizarre purchase tax system in operation in the 1950s and 1960s, it was cheaper for companies to do their own printing.  Tax on plain paper was zero, but if it was printed it was 66%, so work it out for yourself.  VAT would have solved the problem.

But now letterpress is coming back and like the printer who provided the pictures in this note, it is doing well.

There is nothing like the feel of a properly printed card or letterhead!  And you can do so many clever things with a proper printing machine, like score, number, decolate and perforate.

A few years ago, I met one of people my father used to deal with at Enfield Rolling Mills.  He explained how my father would use his skills to create production control documents and cards, to smooth the flow of work through the factory. That was the pinnacle of production control and workflow of its times.

It is a strange irony, that I  made my money by writing software for project management. Is it in the genes?

August 22, 2013 - Posted by | World | , , ,


  1. Letterpress is indeed alive and well – especially here in the US. Our studios, outfitted with several types including the original Heidelberg like your photo, some Vandercook proof presses and a couple of miscellaneous Kelseys and such – is used by artists and hobbyists who like working with their hands instead of behind a computer. Handmade is truly a labor of love and cannot be duplicated in the electronic world!

    Comment by Janice | July 1, 2009 | Reply

  2. My father had a Wharfedale as well. But I’d love to get a picture of that proofing press he used. He did augment it with a modern one, but it wasn’t so wonderful.

    Where are you based?

    Comment by AnonW | July 1, 2009 | Reply

  3. We are based in Rochester NY. Here is a pic of one of our proofing presses – A Vandercook No. 3. We also have a similar (No. 4) and others.

    Comment by Janice | July 1, 2009 | Reply

  4. That’s a serious proofing press. My father only had ones you inked with a hand roller.

    Comment by AnonW | July 1, 2009 | Reply

  5. We have a tiny, hand-ink type as well. The one we have was used to test ink batches. The Vandercook is a production-worthy press and came in varieties with and without motors, belt paper feed systems, etc.

    Comment by Janice | July 1, 2009 | Reply

  6. […] I said in my post, Letterpress Rules OK, that there weren’t that many printing museums in the […]

    Pingback by Museum Plantin-Moretus « The Anonymous Widower | August 8, 2009 | Reply

  7. […] have said in previous posts like Letterpress Rules OK, that my father was a printer.  One of his employees was a lovely Scot called Frank Black.  He […]

    Pingback by Well Done Eddie! « The Anonymous Widower | September 16, 2009 | Reply

  8. Wow! Imagine operating one of those everyday!

    Comment by note card printing | May 1, 2010 | Reply

  9. I have done!

    Comment by AnonW | May 1, 2010 | Reply

  10. […] one or other of my father’s Original Heidelberg printing machines. One is shown in this post. My simple job, was to call him, if the machines dropped any paper, which is a letterpress […]

    Pingback by In DB Style From Berlin To Heidelberg « The Anonymous Widower | May 7, 2014 | Reply

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