Eric Baker | Today Column

Today, 06.06.09

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.

Comments [20]

Mad Inspiration! Thanks.

This could be seen as Chris Ware 1.0.


Would love to check out a copy of Reeve's Pocket Companion, the cover is crazy.
Aaron Taylor-Waldman

Did you raid Chris Wares' personal files? These are wonderful.

Thanks for the post. And thanks to Mr. Sheaff for assembling a great collection.
Steve Juras

remember guys and gals, these were done by hand!
pat Taylor

@Armin and @Uland, Isn't the history reversed here? Doesn't it seem more like Chris Ware has raided the files of Richard Scheaff and the history of chromolithography for inspiration -- since these pre-date his work by a century? I know you both were kidding, but in fact doesn't the historical juxtaposition of a leading contemporary illustrator like Chris Ware against this 19th Century artistic printing tell us interesting things about how ideas evolve and and mutate over time?
William Drenttel

Great work, keep it up, its good to see these collections on the internet.

Paul Stevens

While I can't help but applaud the exuberant examples, I'd be happier if it had less of the air of historical ephemera: in fact, much of this reminds me of 19th century woodcuts.

For a fine example of contemporary (albeit with much historical perspective), I heartily recommend Jim Rimmer....
L.M. Cunningham

A beautiful and profusely illustrated book on artistic printing, written by Doug Clouse and Angela Voulangas, has just been published by Princeton Architectural Press. It is well worth seeking out. More information on the book can be found here:


> @Armin and @Uland, Isn't the history reversed here?

Of course! That's where my "version 1.0" joke came in, as in this is the original version of the Chris Ware style.

Might the renewed interest in letterpress printing be attributed to the proliferation of low-cost low-quality digital printing? It's convenient to be able to print 10,000 business cards for under $100 but I think the result often leaves people wanting more. Letterpress cards are much more "premium" and make a better impression.
Patrick Cahalan


I've always loved this style of design, I even attempted it once in my college years...obviously this work is much better and very influential. Thanks a ton for showing this awesome work.

These are just amazing. Thanks for the inspiration!

Thanks for the brief but informative introduction to the images Eric.

I realize I'm always shouting into the wind, but it would be great if the next generation of online archives and archivists could include options to sort by location and/or era. It's great to see inspirational images, but I personally would love to know if there were regional (or individual) tendencies (i.e. despite the overly excessive, some of these are downright minimalist) or if there were changes from decade to decade. I'm sure there were, just like there are now, but its so difficult to make heads from tails with the way many of these sites are set up nowadays.
Derrick Schultz

Of course this means I have to design a new business card. These are great. I love the tactile feeling of letterpress.
John Atchley

Lovely! I've just begun collecting examples of ephemera with this kind of style. Recently, I found a cigar label that just blew me away!
Diane Faye Zerr

Great collection and thanks for the post Eric, they would form a stunning exhibition. If they tour Europe do let us know!
Steve Rigley

I think these are absolutely fantastic. Undoubtedly dated, filled with exploration and excitement, tremendous craft, and the sheer joy of making stuff.
A good reason to get to work each day.
Howard Stein

Of course this means I have to design a new business card. These are great. I love the tactile feeling of letterpress.

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