A history of printing in America

July 16, 2013 by  

Printing has its roots way back in time. When the early Chinese first started putting ink to ancient paper, America was not even a twinkle in the distant relatives of the Founding Fathers. Throughout the whole world, it became increasingly popular, as a way to talk to the masses, and really came of age in the 15th Century. The start of America’s printing history would wait a good deal longer.

Sometime around the 1450s, German Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press that carries his name. An innovative invention, it made mass production of printed materials possible, something which had never really been achieved with great success before. It was this invention that would revolutionize printing and its role in the future.

As it would remain for many years, the first notable event in the history of mass printing was indelibly linked to religion. Between 1453 – 4, 180 copies of the Bible were produced. At near 1,300 pages of 42 lined columns, it was a huge effort. A team of more than 20 was able to print up to six pages a day.

As printing continued through the 16th and 17th Centuries, its path would have clear influences on printing in the U.S. Over the course of time, both The Netherlands and Britain would become centers of printing, with learned tomes, religious missives, state propaganda, and books being very much the staples of the presses.

It is little surprise therefore that, in the American colonies, printing of much the same materials was the order of the day. This was certainly the case for North America’s first ever printing press in 1638. Created at the Harvard College, Stephen and Matthew Daye were its owners.

This status quo would continue for many years, with the early printers of America themselves largely coming from Europe. It would be the cities of Boston, New London, and New York that would become the centers of printing. Philadelphia would also rise to prominence.

While the printing world in early America was dominated by European settlers, it would be in the final part of the 18th Century that Americans themselves would start to make an impact. Moving very much away from the traditional printing of sermons and other communiques, the print industry would really get going with the emergence of newspapers.

Books too would remain incredibly popular, and it was this that fueled Benjamin Franklin’s rise to prominence. Probably often thought of the main protagonist in the history of printing in America, Franklin was, in truth, just one of many people that were keen to see the technology progress.

For simply getting a message out there, quickly and effectively, it was clear that printing was the way forward. Much as it was used against the early nation, so too did print play a big role in helping the country emerge. Print was very much at the heart of the American Revolution, helping to keep troops up to date with policy and tactics.

Still though, while advances had made the presses more efficient and more capable, such as steam technology and continuous rolls of paper, the basic premise still harked back to the Gutenberg Press. As the start of the 20th Century approached though, the development of Linotype would revolutionize the print industry again.

In 1884, the introduction of Linotype mechanized the process, allowing presses to become cleaner, more efficient, and more reliable, while also adding a greater dimension. Most particularly though, it improved the speed of printing immeasurably.

Another huge step forward for printing was the invention of the typewriter, which allowed printing at home and by the masses to become a reality. As the 20th Century matured and then advanced further, there would be further stunning transformations.

Developments such as the cathode ray tube, laser and photo-mechanical composition all came online, The appearance of the Xerox machine was a huge step forward too, and showed that excellent print results that were quicker, better, and more economical than ever before were now achievable.

Still further, and as word processing from personal computers came in, printing for business was already the number one way to advertise and communicate with staff and customers alike. Computer printing then took things ever further, with editing software and other programs all allowing exciting results to come from the humble dot matrix impact printer.

Newer print technologies involving the laser printer would see an even greater love for printing found. As litho had done before, print advances and developments in other areas meant that flyer and catalog printing became very much the normal operation. As scanners and printers became ever bigger, larger print formats such as banners would begin to be seen.

More modern years have seen digital printing really come to the fore, with many preferring it to litho. However, there are many more new and exciting technologies out there for printing today, it is unlikely that digital print as we know it will dominate for some near 500 years as Gutenberg’s letter press did.

As has always been the case, it will all be about the quality that is achieved. It is this that very much makes the difference for people printing from the office and home, to using a professional print company. The quality is very good, and far better than anything that could even have been dreamed possible some years ago. It is not good enough though when compared to professional printing.

It is also important to understand that, while getting the image to print is the most important part of the print process, it is not everything. The quality of the ink and the way it fuses to the paper is incredibly important, for example. For printing for business, the works involved in packaging up the prints are important too. Again, professional printers deliver this.

From the dawn of early human history, people have needed to communicate. The printed word and image have allowed this to happen. From papyrus scrolls to digitally printed business cards, the story of print has journeyed a long way. It is a journey that will continue to write, or fuse, itself.