It’s not everyday one gets an invitation to learn more about the history of printing presses and how they work… so when the invitation came, the Little Mail Carriers jumped into their envelope and made their way to the north of Germany, where the newly revamped Museumsdruckerei Hoya (Hoya’s Printing Museum) is re-opening today! Here they are, to tell you all about what you can discover inside.
Being Mail Carriers, we hold many paper goods in our hands every day. These are letters and postcards in various sizes and colors with all kinds of stamps on them – lots of printed and written paper. Like thousands of postcrossers in the world, we are fascinated by stationery, paper and other printed matters. So are our hosts Claas (aka Speicher3) and Christine (aka Reisegern), who have shown us today how the printed letters and images have been applied to paper since ages.
They invited us to come with them to Hoya, a small town on the river Weser in Northern Germany.
Once we arrive in the letterpress printing office Museumsdruckerei Hoya, we are welcomed by Michael Linke, who built up an amazing collection of printing presses and types over thirty years.
Right at the entrance of the museum, we spot a figurine on a wooden construction. Michael, who’s that?
“That’s Johannes Gutenberg”, Michael explains. “The figurine is placed on a reproduction of the Gutenberg printing press. Gutenberg is known as the inventor of modern printing.” While we drink some coffee and eat butterkuchen, a typical northern German cake, Michael tells us about the history of printing:
"Already several thousand years ago, simple printed (stamped) seals were used in Egypt and Mesopotamia. More progressive printing technologies were developed in China more than a thousand years ago. For printing books, in the beginning whole pages were carved into wooden blocks, later on moveable letters were invented. That made printing much easier, though for printing something in Chinese, a lot of different characters were needed.
“In Europe, books were mainly multiplied in monasteries by copyists — all handwritten. Until at the end of the Middle Ages, in the 15th century, Johannes Gutenberg triggered a gigantic media revolution. He used moveable letters made from new materials, found a new ink recipe and invented a special printing press. He combined known printing technologies and his inventions to an efficient printing system. This allowed inexpensive, high-quality mass media production for the first time. The Gutenberg printing system spread across Europe and the whole world.”
But what are moveable letters? Michael encourages us to explore the printing workshop, where we find an aisle full of drawers.
Opening them, we discover an overwhelming amount of moveable letters in different sizes and fonts. Yay, let’s take some of them and build a word! It’s a bit complicated, as all those letters are mirrored.
Michael lets us know: “Before the invention of digital printing, all printed texts were composed by typesetters. They put every single character of the texts line by line into composing sticks, which were then transferred to the printing press.” Wow, what an effort! Can you imagine how many types a typesetter has to handle for a daily newspaper?
In another drawer we find images that look like rubber stamps, but they are made of metal instead of rubber, some very old ones even are woodcuts.
Let’s take some and see what they look like when they are printed! We’ll combine them with the text we composed in the composing stick. For our first printing experiments, we use a very simple printing press. We put our design in there, add printing ink, lay a sheet of paper on top, close the lid and press firmly.
That’s fun! Look, the images at the bottom of the page seem to be postal stamps. Michael, would that be possible? Michael explains: “Of course. Stamps were also printed with so-called printing clichés (that’s the name of those images).”
Does this mean, we could print our own stamps in this printing workshop? 🤔 “Good idea!”, Michael says, “We can print your personal stamps here. Did you iron your uniforms? I’ll take a photo of you.” With those photos, a metal cliché is being produced.
We are so excited! The cliché is fixed in a big printing press. Now we have to work very accurately, because if the height of the image is off by even a tenth of a millimeter, it can make a difference that’s visible in the quality of the print.
Can we now print? “I think you forgot something”, says Michael. “You need to grab some printing ink.”
Oh gosh, that’s some thick, sticky stuff. Michael smirks and shows us his totally paint-smeared work coat. “Indeed. If you get that onto your uniform, you won’t be able to remove the stains ever again.”
For this printing press, we don’t need to hand-ink the composition. Instead, we put the ink onto the rollers of the printing press and can print our stamps. Oh, they are wonderful, aren’t they? While the ink is drying, we have some snack and listen to Michael, who tells us more about printing history.
“Gutenberg’s invention initiated meaningful social developments. Through the mass printing of texts, knowledge, information and opinions could suddenly be spread much easier, more widely and without the control of state and church. Just like today with the internet, many more people were able to access knowledge or publish their own texts through the printing press than ever before.”
Enlightening! We never thought about all that.
Our prints are dry now. But something’s missing. Our stamps cannot be taken apart from each other. So more accurate work is needed for perforating our stamps with a vintage perforating machine.
Done! Now we can send out postcards with our own decorative stamps in addition to the normal postage.
Nowadays, most printed matters are being produced with offset or laser printing technologies. We enjoyed our visit to the museum printing office with all those fascinating machines, strange sounds and odors.
Thank you Michael, we love our stamps. What’s next? “Let’s grab some ice cream and enjoy the evening on the banks of the river Weser.” A great suggestion, Michael!
Michael decided to commit his collection to the public, and now the newly founded association Museumsdruckerei Hoya “Zwiebelfisch” is responsible for running the place. Speicher3 and Reisegern are members of the association. The museum’s website (in German) is www.museumsdruckerei-hoya.de, and you can also find it on Facebook: Museumsdruckerei Hoya (no login required!).
Our huge thank you to Claas, Christine and Michael, for this fantastic tour and giveaway! The Museum is opening today again after a long break, and we’re excited to see this beautiful collection be shared with the public, so that people can learn from it and make beautiful things. Hurray!
Reisegern and Speicher3 would like to give away five of the stamp sheets* that were printed with the Little Mail Carriers to the readers of the Postcrossing Blog. If you’d like to win one of these, leave a comment below sharing a memory concerning letterpress machines, suggesting what the next thing we should print should be or what we should write about on our website! The giveaway will run for a week, and Paulo’s random number generator will select five winners by this time next Saturday. Good luck!