A! Magazine for the Arts

Letterpress workshop ties to exhibit at The Birthplace of Country Music Museum.

Letterpress workshop ties to exhibit at The Birthplace of Country Music Museum.

The letterpress affects the cardboard history of Blue Ridge Music

February 26, 2024

By David Winship

Getting the word out takes on a special significance when one talks about the method in which the visual word is produced. Many have heard of the history of printing, that Gutenberg produced the first movable type in Europe. Some know that over the following 500 years, printers used a variety of technologies, from monotype to linotype, from letterpress to offset printing to our modern digital processes. Yet few recognize the threads that run through the centuries of printing that are reflected in the current exhibit at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum entitled, “A Cardboard History of Blue Ridge Music.”

These posters that anchor the exhibit were produced with hand set and letterpress printed type, some from small local print shops and some from more established print shops, such as Hatch Print, in Nashville. The posters used primarily wooden type, which could be up to 5” in height to grab your attention. Some of the smaller type up to 1” were metal type. Both types would have been arranged and fastened together to be printed on presses that had their origins in the early days of printing. Flat bed presses could be manual or were motorized.

In the early days of country music, hand bills that could be put up in stores and stations advertised the location of music shows. The posters of this collection are primarily from the ‘40s through the ‘70s and advertised concerts and small festivals. They were printed on thick cardboard and were cheap and easy to produce and were expected only to last from the time of posting to the time of the show and then thrown away. The fact that many have survived is a tribute to both the stability of the printed form and the diligence of those who recognized their historical importance.

Letterpress printing is a trade that had gone out of favor with the coming of more modern techniques, but has reemerged as a craft in the art field. When many of the old shops closed or were converted, often the type was scrapped, the presses were sold for their weight in cast iron, and the typecases ended up as showcases for knick-knacks. For those materials and equipment that survived, the current recognition of hand-crafted art will prolong the legacy of the printing trade.

Letterpress refers to both the type of medium which is being printed, as well as the technique and presses which are used for printing. In this context, the letters are individual or monotype. This means that each letter has to be uniquely selected and arranged to form the words. These lines of type are then firmly locked into a frame, which is then printed on a press. Pictures that accompany the text can be made mechanically or by hand, cut from wood, linoleum or engraved. When the copy is set and prepared, ink is applied by rollers, either by hand or mechanically on the larger presses. Unique to this process is that the letters are created and set in reverse, essentially backward, so that when the impression is made, it comes out right side up.

Locally in Bristol at King University, the Sign of the George Press has had a resurgence with the support of the Digital Media Art and Design Department. The Press was started by Dr. George P. “Pat” Winship in the late ‘60s as a way to show his English students the methods that authors like William Shakespeare had to manage to get their literary works into print. Dr. Winship had a small press when he was growing up as the son of a rare books librarian, and he continued the press by accumulating type and presses from the printshops that were abandoning from the letterpress business as they modernized. As his son who grew up with the press, I still operate it.

The Birthplace of County Music Museum offers a hands-on workshop at the museum March 16, which allows participants the opportunity to learn about letterpress printing, produce a poster of their own and to tour the exhibit. Participants also have the opportunity to tour the Sign of the George Press on King University campus to get a closer up look at the printing process.