Social implications of the printing press

I am teaching a university letterpress class next semester and would like to incorporate a lesson on the social and political effects that the press brought on. Have you come across any sources that you would care to share? I hope to emphasize that these machines were built to spread information, and not just for making pretty things.


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For my MA Thesis on William Maxwell, first printer in the Old Northwestern Territory, I compared some of the published historical writing about early printing and publishing in the US. There are several works that could be helpful — Lawrence Wroth’s The Colonial Printer, Rollo Silver’s The American Printer are two. Sorry to say, the thesis was never published.



Suggest you consider these two:

The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe (Elizabeth L. Eisenstein)

The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (Elizabeth L. Eisenstein)

All good references above…. I’d concurr with Bill.

I’d also recommend two books by James Burke:

“Connections” and “The Day The Universe Changed” both have excellent discussions of the social impact that printing had upon society.

Also…. “The Book on the Bookshelf” deals with the topic at length. Unfortunately, I don’t the author. Sorry.

Jason, I commend you on your endeavors to teach and
share your knowledge of letterpress. There are good programs around the country that offer LP/bookarts degrees,Wells College,University of AL, Mills in CA.etc…The current social problem as I see it is where on earth do these graduates find jobs? Part of the responsibilty of teaching a profession is that of placement after education. Imagine a med school
or Architecture school,Law school saying to their students “good luck finding a job”. Also there is the dilema
of instuctors w/o trade experience teaching, creating bad work habits, inventing phrases like pressure printing, photopolymer gravure and the like. Best of luck james


I have to respond to your question. I agree with you that it is part of the responsibility of educators to aid in placement after graduation.

In my own case, I bought my own press and type, on a shoe string budget I might add, and began printing books and other things after taking several letterpress classes. I am also now teaching letterpress. I don’t think it is any more irresponsible to teach letterpress than oil painting , etching or other methods of printmaking. Since you mention photpolymer gravure, my experience has been that it is one of the better methods of reproducing images while incorporating hand set type for a small letterpress edition book. I don’t agree with the name, especially after working at a rotogravure printing company while I was going through college. It is bit of a misnomer but whatever it is called, it enables a printer or artist to edition any kind of image in very fine detail. I am glad there are printers, printmakers and other artists/craftsmen who are pushing the envelope to develop new methods of reproduction.



The study of books and printing can certainly be considered a part of a well-rounded Liberal Arts Education, and probably not as a vocational course. I have taught in Journalism and Industrial Technology programs, and have always included an appetizer of history and mixed salad of change in perspective as a part of whatever course I have taught. They all have included letterpress as a segment both from an historical view and as current technology.

My varied experiences as a college student prepared me for life and not for a job.


I have pieced together your resume from posting and Flickr photos. It is ironic that in my 4th year of teaching a beginning letterpress class, I have come to almost the same conclusion. The college curriculum encourages collaborative projects but they take too long and some of the students lose interest. I will be doing almost the same individual book project you described in my next class. It goes for 96 hours. You are correct is that they only want to learn how to print.

Thanks for the insightful post.


jhenry, most people go to College/University to learn a profession. I would not go to medical school to prepare for life. Lets say you earn a masters degree in book arts, and
then you go to work at Mcdonalds isn’t that ridiculous.Going
to College or University is a serious thing.A lot of money and time invested,college is not a hobby. Back to the intial thread of the social effects is the responsibility of the instructor to educate an individual with marketable skills to land a job. There are very few jobs to be had in the book arts/letterpress and instructors of all people should know this.The social effect is you graduate and there is nothing out there that is irresponsible. Life prepared me for life and college prepared me for a james

Amazing. With that philosophy there would be no artists, painters, circus performers, mimes. I could go on and on. How many people do you know that went to college to learn a profession that they now hate doing every day. That is why people take classes in things which won’t support them as a profession. They enjoy doing them and will find a way to do them.



In the 1960’s some people, like me, went to college to “get an education” and prepare for life. People with college degrees seemed to earn higher salaries, and this is probably why many people’s parents sent their children to college. I received a bachelor’s degree in art from a small liberal arts college in Maine. Eventually it dawned on me that the most important thing I learned in college was not the course subject matter, but how to think: the ability to reason, do critical thinking, solve problems, etc. During this time, approximately, I was introduced to letterpress printing in high school, continued with letterpress at the non-credit graphic arts workshop in college, and had hands-on jobs in the shops of two letterpress printers and one offset printer. After college, since it was during the Vietnam war, I went into the US Air Force for four years. That four years gave me the time to do my final preparation for life and decide what to do with the rest of it. My two occupational loves were railroading and printing. Since railroads were in bad shape at that time, I chose printing. I applied to Rochester Institute of Technology’s graduate program and did two years of graduate work in printing Technology, which included a veriety of hands-on printing courses as well as research methods, etc. After RIT, I was hired by a large packaging corporation and worked in package printing R&D, supervision, etc. for many years, from which I am now semi-retired. I took a break from industry during 1981-1995 to teach letterpress, litho, flexo, graphic design, etc. in a community college, and took several college level education courses to maintain my teacher certification. Along the way, I have had my own small letterpress shop for much of the time. So for me, what started out as preparation for life, ended up as preparation for my life’s work.

As I said, my liberal arts degree mainly taught me how to think, however my education in art during this time was also to help in my graphic arts career. My graduate work, even though I didn’t receive another degree, also taught me how to think but more importantly, gave me advanced technical skills in printing, and in research methods for R&D.

I didn’t tell you all this because I wanted you to know about me. It was my intention to give you an example of one person’s education and how it influenced his life and career.

Highly recommended, of course is this:

Nineteenth-Century Printing
Practices and the Iron Handpress
with Selected Readings
by Richard-Gabriel Rummonds
Foreword by Stephen O. Saxe

What’s amazing is how much value I’ve gotten from these 100-300 year old texts. As much as anything, the parts on how to run your business and deal with your clients…