The History of Letterpress

From the Beginning to South Africa

Letterpress printing is a type of relief printing, specifically it started out as printing with moveable type (loose letters) which was a refinement of the existing woodblock printing practiced at the time. Traditionally it made use of a press of some sort. Letterpress printing was popularised by the revolution (largely) attributed to Johannes Gutenberg (Ganzfleisch) in Mainz, Germany beginning around 1439. Relief printing from wood cuts was in use in Europe before that and even earlier in the east, where paper was available at an earlier date, but much of it was impressed by making use of hand rollers or barens. Printing with moveable type predates the Gutenberg developments, again this occured in the east where type made from bronze and ceramic were tried but were unsuccessful in gaining popularity due to socio/political reasons as well as the large alphabet sizes in those languages.

Gutenberg was in the right place at the right time; relief printing was established, literacy was accepted by the learned and religious portions of society, the Latin and German alphabets were reasonably small, he had experience in casting metals and working with engraving tools and had connections with the religious authorities at the time who were the primary repositories of the written word. In the past almost all books were copied by scribes in formal styles and took a long time to complete. His (42 line) Bible project was a monumental work and the printing was a bold undertaking, even today with computers it is a non-trivial task worthy of mention. In Gutenberg’s time it would have been a huge business gamble that we are still reaping the rewards of, even though it did not make him rich.

Letterpress printing almost immediately became the most common form of printing of text, other techniques were still used for illustrations and new techniques have been regularly introduced. The spread of printing was rapid in Europe and then later to all the colonies and trade partners.

In South Africa, a Dutch colony at the time, the first records of printing are by a Johannes Christian Ritter in 1795 or there about. He arrived inthe Cape in 1784 so the printing may have started a bit earlier than the records show. This is about the same time that the English colony in Australia started printing. There are a couple of earlier instances of printing in Africa attributed mostly to missionary work. The start was a bit bumpy with restrictions placed on the printing by the authoritarian and sometimes collusive government practices. This was followed by government monopolies. The freedom of the press was achieved in 1828 and has been maintained since with certain censorships placed at various times over the years as temporary measures.

A missionary, Valentine Schoonberg has the distinction of having published the first book and the first religious text in South Africa in 1799, perhaps more of a booklet as it was only 8 pages long, sort of a motivational letter from a reverend of the LMS for the loyal following at the new Cape colony.

One of the other famous printers in South Africa was Reverend Robert Moffat. He was employed by the London Missionary Society and founded a mission at Kuruman and in 1831 brought an iron handpress there and started to print religious texts and later translated the Bible into Tswana in 1857. This was the first South African language Bible to be published. He continued to publish and the press generated over 100 works before he retired in 1870.  The old iron hand press Rev Moffat used is still preserved, now back at the mission museum after a stay at the Kimberly library, and is occasionally still used to print memorabilia. Robert Moffat also took part in the movement in England and her colonies to abolish slavery.

There is also a very interesting vintage press on display in Genadendal that is a previously unknown variant of the Liberty style press.  It was also used as a missionary press in the oldest mission in South Africa established by a German missionary Georg Schmidt in 1738.

South Africa was the first to have the Monophoto photo typesetting equipment set up at the Government Printers in 1957, this was the time when letterpress printing was starting to wane and the first generation of automated photo typesetting machines were in development.

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