In recent years, new attention has been paid to letterpress printing. Perhaps it is the texture and craft that we respond to, or a reaction against technology, or even just a desire to imbue new things with the traditions of the past. Whatever the reason, it is probably fair to say that printing has always been as much an art as a craft.
In the late Nineteenth century, American and British printers developed a design aesthetic that came to be know as artistic printing. This was, without a doubt, an era marked by heavy ornamentation, prone to excessive decoration, and with a clear preference for effusive, hand-drawn letters. At the core of this aesthetic lay the actual typography itself: it was not uncommon to observe examples of printed matter graced by a sheer multitude of fonts. This was especially true in handbills, announcements and broadsides, where each individual line of type might be set in a completely different typeface.
Practitioners of artistic printing subscribed to the belief that letterpress printers could and should develop their own sophisticated styles; that they should avail themselves of artfully arranged type; and that less could not possibly be more. The introduction of chromolithography — or color printing — during this time offered another opportunity to explore and elaborate by producing compositions graced by layered elements — cast shadows, overlapping type and no shortage of ribbons — embellishments intended to simulate and amplify the illusion of pictorial richness.
To contemporary viewers, much of this work appears chaotic and overblown, out of step with modern opinion. Yet the best of this work endures, reminding us that a century ago, designers privileged excess, developing a body of work that relied upon a lively orchestration of mismatched form: from brass rules to floral ornaments to a myriad of deeply ornamental typefaces, the printed examples that follow were composed by a host of artists whose collective (if anonymous) legacy lives on — a material reminder of all that was so madly, gloriously Victorian.
We are pleased to share highlights here from the remarkable ephemera collection of Scottsdale, Arizona designer and collector Richard Sheaff, and invite your comments.
Eric Baker Design Associates is a Manhattan-based design firm established in 1986. Eric teaches the history of graphic design and corporate identity at the School of Visual Arts, and has twice received National Endowment for the Arts Grants for independent design history projects. He is inveterate collector of books and ephemera. Editor's Note: All images link to their original source and are copyright of their original owners.