After more than 600 years letterpress lives on; small communities keeping machines, art alive

The machines and the art are rare, but a San Antonio store is pressing on

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SAN ANTONIO – Letterpress began in the 1400ss and was the primary form of printing and communication for 500 years.

Many people may think more than 600 years later in a world run by technology, that technique would be obsolete.

However, scattered across the nation are tiny communities of people working to keep it alive.

In a boutique card shop in the Quarry shopping center, there are unexpected sounds: churning metal and the hum of a spinning wheel.

"I found a baby letter press at an antique mall in Florida, and the rest, as they say, is history!" said store owner Meg Sutton.

Sutton recently opened Belle and Union, a store filled with her hand-printed creations.

"It's a very basic process," she said, standing at the end of a huge letterpress from the 1800s.

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She smeared a tacky ink across the letterpress' giant metal plate. Once she turned the machine on, huge metal rollers came up and spread the ink across the plate.

Once that was done, she set her card paper across from the plate.

"Your roller is going to come up over that plate, grab some ink and every time it's going to transfer just enough that it will print for us," she said.

To a newbie, it seems a little complicated, but once she started quickly flipping papers in and out of the press, it was clear Sutton was a pro.

"I could do this all day long. I'll have to re-ink it about every 100 prints or so. But I still have to manually put every single paper in every single time," she said.

When the printing is done, it leaves an imprint in the paper.

"This tactile quality, a bite in the paper, so you know a maker's hands touched this," Sutton said, smiling.

Bigger presses like the one Sutton uses most often have had motors installed. She does, however, have a tiny press which is even older, she said probably from the 1700s. It used to make things like business cards or print on prescription bottles at the pharmacy.  With that press, she has to physically pull a lever to make it work.

Sutton cherishes these rare machines.

"A lot of them ended up in scrap yards. They just don't exist anymore, and if they do, they may not be in working order," she explained.

She said the ones that are working are hard to maintain.

"Unfortunately, there's not a mechanic I can call up when something goes wrong. The masters that know this craft have long gone. There's maybe one left in Colorado who's about 90 who you can call and say, 'Fritz, it's making this noise! What do I do?' A lot of it is trial and error," she said.

 That challenge has created a small, yet very close, community of letterpress enthusiasts who place community over competition.

"We're like a family, but we know we're upholding this ancient technology for the next generation and that's really important," Sutton said.

Belle and Union holds different workshops every month. The one on Oct. 20 will offer letterpress lessons where participants can print their own custom stationary.

It's from 10 a.m. to noon for $125 per person, which includes the stationary made during the session.

Belle and Union is located at 310 E. Basse Road, Suite 103.

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