T-60. The History of 19th- and 20th-Century Typography & Printing

John Kristensen Katherine M. Ruffin

Course Length: 30 hours
Course Week: 7–12 July 2024
Format: in person, University of Virginia in Charlottesville, VA
Fee: $1,395

By the end of the eighteenth century, letterpress printing had been in existence for 350 years, and in that time, it had changed technologically hardly at all. Baskerville, Bodoni, and Didot were printing from essentially the same hand-cast type on the same handmade paper with the same wooden presses that Gutenberg, Jenson, and Aldus had used. By the end of the twentieth century, letterpress had been eclipsed by the printing technologies that continue to change the way we deal with, and even think about, the printed word. The 200-year interval considered in this course, which, in no coincidence, also saw the rise of the Enlightenment and industrialism, is characterized by a series of dynamic tensions between continuity and change. The scale and influence of printing changed profoundly, yet letterpress, dominant throughout the period, remained identifiably the same technology. Letterpress, in its capabilities and its limitations, shaped not only how typography developed but to a great degree what it is today.

T-60 will examine the inextricable bond between the technological and cultural contexts of typography and printing: the evolution of ideas about the graphic expression of thought and language; the revolution of ideas about printing as an art; and the very concept, as we now understand it, of graphic design. While acknowledging the monumental books of the period and the great personalities who created them, the course will attempt to see both the books and the people not in splendid isolation but as responses, and sometimes challenges, to prevailing conditions and expectations.

Students in this course will learn how to describe and identify typefaces and the periods they represent. Lectures, discussions, and demonstrations will give an overview of the evolution of typography and printing, and highlight case studies that are particularly illuminating. The course will emphasize the examination of original materials from the RBS collections and the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library. In addition, students will engage in hands-on typesetting and printing lab sessions using RBS’s type and Vandercook proofing press.

Course History

John Kristensen and Katherine M. Ruffin co-teach this course in person in Charlottesville, VA.
John Kristensen and Katherine M. Ruffin co-teach this course online (12 hours).
John Kristensen and Katherine M. Ruffin co-teach this course in person in Charlottesville, VA.


  • John Kristensen
  • Katherine M. Ruffin

John Kristensen

Though trained as an architectural historian, John Kristensen found his calling in printing and has for more than 30 years been the proprietor of Boston’s Firefly Press, a commercial letterpress printing office and type foundry, the goal of which has been to apply the craft of true letterpress printing and the virtues of traditional typography to the needs and circumstances of the present day. His work has led him to study and his study to teaching, his chief interest being Boston and New England printing and printers of the turn of the twentieth century. He calls himself “the world’s last D. B. Updike wannabee.” From 1993 until 2001, Kristensen both instructed in printing and lectured on the topics of the Dartmouth College Summer Book Arts Workshops. Firefly Press hosts frequent visits and workshops for school classes and graphic design organizations, and Kristensen has delivered talks to groups as diverse the Cambridge Historical Society and Save Venice. In 2009, he delivered the J. Ben Lieberman Lecture of the American Printing History Association. He first lectured at RBS in 2010, when he spoke on “The Heavyweight Bout: Linotype vs. Monotype.” In 2011, he delivered the inaugural Charles A. Rheault Lecture of Boston’s Society of Printers. A short documentary on Firefly Press, made in 2001 by Boston’s WGBH Television, is by an enormous margin the most-often viewed letterpress-related video on the internet.

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Katherine M. Ruffin

Katherine M. Ruffin is the Director of the Book Studies Program and a Lecturer in Art at Wellesley College, where she integrates the practices of papermaking, letterpress printing, and bookbinding into the liberal arts curriculum. She also teaches the history of the book at the School of Library and Information Science at Simmons University, in both in-person and fully remote formats. Since 1994, she has published limited editions under her own imprint of Shinola Press. Her research interests include the history of printing, bibliography, and libraries. Her dissertation was titled “Carl Purington Rollins and the Bibliographical Press at Yale University.” In 2017, she gave the Hofer Lecture at Harvard University’s Houghton Library: “Books as Portals: Reading and Responding to Historical Collections in the 21st Century.” She serves on the advisory board for the Bookbinding Program at North Bennet Street School and is a member of the American Antiquarian Society. She holds an A.B. in Philosophy from Bryn Mawr College, an M.F.A. in the Book Arts from the University of Alabama, and a Ph.D. in Library and Information Science from Simmons University.

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