Identifying print types. I need help.

Hello. My name is Larry.
I am not entirely sure if this is the right forum for me- if someone knows of a better one, please do not hesitate to direct me there- but I suspect the knowedgebase here overlaps with the questions I have.

I collect vintage crate labels. I’m sure everyone is familliar with what they look like, great old art and design from the turn of the century, up to the 1960s when the era died out.

The problem I am having is understanding the different sorts of printing methodologies I am dealing with.

For example, under magnification, lithography appears as congruent colors. It is obvious.

Other forms of printing, however, appear as ‘little dots’ under magnification.

My question to the experts here is: what is the printing method called that executes a printed image with a series of ‘little dots’ and more importantly, just how old is this method?

Is it possible for a crate label from the 20s or 30s or 40s to be of this ‘little printing dots’ method?

I’m attaching an image of a label I am considering buying. The darn thing even says “Litho USA” on the bottom right corner however the seller insists that actual lithography wasn’t used on anything but the oldest labels. Something about this strikes me as odd, seeing as the thing actually says “Litho” on it.

Sorry for the long post.
I’ve scoured the internet for information but have received only speculations and tenuous knowledge. If anyone has actual, firm knowledge of this question and can help out, a 6 pack is on me.



image: litho1.jpg


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“Litho” is a shorthand for offset lithography, a later development than “true” or stone lithography, which is probably what the seller is thinking of. The dots you sometimes see, especially in color printing, are called “halftone dots” and allow a full spectrum of colors to be printed with only four colors, or to get two or three tints of a color, for example red and two shades of pink, from one color. Generally the halftone process dates from about the middle of the 19th century or later. If you examine the colors of a label under a magnifying glass you can generally tell what the process was. If all the colors are solids the halftone process was not used, and the piece could have been printed by stone or offset lithography. If there seems to be a sort of darker edge to the image colors under magnification, like the ink is a bit thicker there, the label was probably printed by letterpress. Because the inks are usually at least somewhat transparent, additional colors can also be obtained by printing one color over another for a third color - red plus yellow to get orange, for example. It’s hard to be sure of the process if you’re not quite familiar with the results from all of the processes. HTH!


If “HTH” means “Hope That Helps”, that would literally been the biggest understatement I’ve encountered in a year.

You knocked my question completely out of the park.

Thank you so, SO very much.

Just so I’m clear: It is entirely possible for labels [printed late 19th century and later to have those ‘halftone dots’, correct?

Try to find out more about the contemporary Dutch poster designer and collector Gielijn Escher, a great artis and well known for his fantastic typographical posterst, who’s got a magnificent collection of crate labels (nearly all American) and orange wrappers, and who’s published books on the art and the techniques of these labels. If I’m not wrong, most of them were printed in lithography. And later on in offset lithography.

Some of his posters:

Labels printed in the late 19th century using the halftone process (dots) would have been printed letterpress, as offset lithography was not invented until the beginning of the 20th century. That’s why I said that if the ink seems thicker at the edges of the image areas it was probably printed letterpress. If it’s in color and has the halftone dots I would expect it to have been printed offset litho in the 20th century. I believe the labels that were printed by stone lithography used solid colors.


If you would like to take a look at a book that describes and illustrates these methods (and others), read through How To Identify Prints, by Bamber Gascoigne, 1986. Very thorough.


If you would like to take a look at a book that describes and illustrates these methods (and others), read through How To Identify Prints, by Bamber Gascoigne, 1986. Very thorough.


look at the dots closely, are they very sharp on an absolutely regular mechanical pattern, , or they could have been brushed on, sprayed on through a fine mesh onto a litho plate for example: mid to late 19thc lithos “halftone” could be hand stippled or transferred from/via other media onto the plate/stone eg a grained or tinted stone created for this purpose which gave a dotted effect.Be careful of modern reproductions, eg I was nearly tempted by “old” railway travel posters but they were modern colour separated reproductions.Printing of half tones probably took off late 1800’s with ruled and cross ruled screens.

Stone lithography was used for imaging as separate from printing even after metal plate lithography was developed (note that there was direct zinc lithography before offset lithography). The litho artist worked on stone and then the image was stored (using transfer press and transfer paper) on other stones. When needed, it was transferred back onto stone or plate. Many storage stones still exist, with multiple job images on both faces.
You need to examine the dot structure of the images, and hand-stippling, Ben-Day screen, and photomechanical dots are very different.. Any one of them could have been used in lithography but also converted to letterpress, and that too would be obvious to an informed observer, which sellers seldom are. But I suspect your seller when he says that litho was only used on older labels was referring only to stone lithography, and ignorant of later lithographic methods.