The western tradition of letterpress printing was probably invented in fifteenth-century Germany by Johannes Gutenberg. It is an artisanal process where individual characters or letters (type) cast from molten lead are assembled into a composition using spacing material and held in a steel frame (chase). The complete assembly (forme) is then transferred to the press where the type is inked – mechanically, or by hand-roller – before being subtly kissed into paper using a press.
This principle remained the same for approximately 500 years before being transformed into an extensively mechanized skilled industry. The commercial application of the process survived well into the late twentieth-century before being superseded by more versatile processes. At Flowers & Fleurons however we celebrate the craft nature of letterpress as a unique survivor in this digital age.
Flowers & Fleurons has a tidy collection of lead type: twentieth-century revivals of classic types like Caslon, Baskerville and Bodoni; twentieth-century originals like Gill Sans and Perpetua; and a flourishing set of printers’ ornaments or fleurons.
Muscular victorian Grotesques and Slab-serifs sit alongside more classically proportioned twentieth century Sans-serifs of more classical portions. Each character bears a history, they have announced victory, defeat, coronations, scandals, cup-wins, political crises and mundane advertising slogans. The scars of decades they wear with pride as they patiently wait their turn to be assembled into words, inked and printed again.
Printer's ornaments, particularly floral designs, are traditionally known as Fleurons. They are individual units that can be assembled together with other ornaments to make borders and motifs. By rotating them in 45° increments different motifs can be realized.
We have two presses: a Vandercook SP-15 made in Chicago at a time when cars had tail fins; and a treadle platen press from the age of the bustle – specifically a Harrild Imperial Octavo Platen of 1906.
Every printed object on the page is held in place by wood and metal spacing material representing white space: • large furniture made of wood, resin or alloy take up whole lines or margins • The leading or line-spacing between lines of type are made of strips of lead • the spacing between individual letters or words are also defined by units of lead spacing.
Letterpress notoriously requires all manner of paraphernalia - lead cutters and mitres; paper guillotines and creasers, board shears, ink knives, rollers - all are accomodated at Flowers & Fleurons’ workshop.