Letterpress Revolution: The Politics of Anarchist Print Culture [Book review]

As a curious truant from a Manchester school I was fascinated by the many do-it-yourself magazines that were much a feature of the 1950’s. One such advert would always spark my imagination. The Adana hand press ‘Not a toy – a real printing press’ was way beyond my pocket but the advert seeded youthful fantasies of publishing. Years later, I came into some money, so I bought Adana’s starter kit. A well built table-top hand press. It is still working fifty years later. 

On a kitchen table in a Lancashire council house I began learning to print by launching a small magazine based upon my Anarchist approach to life. I called it Anarchism Lancastrium. It took an age of inky fingers, arranging type, setting up and reprinting major errors. A painful learning process but it worked. 

The starter kit was too meagre for detailed printing. At that time many commercial printers began to switch over to computer systems and they were left with redundant letterpress equipment. Blessed with charm and a nice smile I would knock on print shop doors and ask if they were open to gifting any type or inks. As such, I saved a lot of stuff from the skip and over the 50 years I’ve put together my own workshop. 

A man and six of his mates from the Conservative club assisted a move away from Lancashire and I switched the title from AL to his current name: The Cunningham Amendment. The magazine continued its satirical origins but the onset of Identity Politics saw a series of radical shops, to this day, decline to take copies. 

There is something inherently wonderful about letterpress. As a compositor I construct words by hand and am constantly on guard to rectify errors. Some of my print and the tins of ink date back to before the second war. The whole process requires thought and skill – an art wholly different from computer-made lay outs. I take pride in the economy of the skill. Just about everything I have was designed and built to last for decades. There is no throw-away in letterpress. Accordingly, I have no need to replace equipment from commercial concerns. Such is the economy of letterpress that it now costs more to post the magazine than it does to produce it. 

The versatility of the craft deserves recording. Mainly because letterpress lends itself to a wide variety of materials. Once I cut up pages from a telephone directory and printed up the slogan: Don’t Vote – Govern Yourself. I placed a stack of the papers on the roof of a five-storey building, placed a crust of bread to hold it down, and as the pigeons came so the wind distributed this wisdom around central Manchester and beyond. I was once given a box of beer mats and I overprinted witty slogans and carefully placed them onto pub tables. Several times I have used supermarket flyers to over-print warnings that what’s on offer is bogus. What mischievous times we live in! 

Now comes along a magnificent book that examines the print culture of the past and talks to contemporary printers who continue with the craft today. As in today’s silo-times Anarchism has always been an assembly of factions and we can be certain that every tendency produced its own paper. Ferguson is to be praised for tracing the many forgotten printers ‘the named and the nameless’ who, in many cases, devoted their lives to the craft. 

The book is a welcome counter to our modern method of using corporate-owned electrical devices as the means of publishing. Letterpress crossed ‘the gap between craft and art taking a step toward a world in which workers would not be alienated from the process of their labour’. Many printers considered the equipment they worked with as almost living entities. Using mostly ancient machines they considered the press as a companion. Quoting printer Jules Faye ‘the presses are people, almost, they have a persona, a personality, they have moods…’ 

Anarchist material always carries an edge. There are people out there who find the notion of a free society threatening. Ferguson gives space to describe many police and vigilante raids. Freedom, once a more open outfit than it is today, was raided four times during WW1. Machines were broken, type and inks confiscated and comrades who came to offer support were raided also. 

By focussing on letterpress Ferguson presents a novel way of looking at the history of Anarchism. Letterpress as a way of working generates an active hands-on ambition to build and embody new and creative ideas. Many now depend on small electrical devices that come with a package of the instant judgements of sad keyboard warriors. It’s not always easy to see how destructive this way of working actually is. As a method letterpress can be visibly seen working and many aspects of the process lends itself to unskilled assistance. Ferguson’s history promotes the message that meaningful radical development builds from face-to-face, hand-to-hand, cooperative endeavour. 

Peter Good 

Letterpress Revolution: The Politics of Anarchist Print Culture by Kathy E Ferguson Duke University Press 2023 https://dukeupress.edu/letterpress-revolution