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

John Kristensen Katherine McCanless Ruffin

“I feel much better equipped to analyze and date types. I also learned a lot about the physical labor and tools employed in letterpress printing.” — 2017 student

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 them—books and people both—not in splendid isolation but as responses, and sometimes challenges, to prevailing conditions and expectations.

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. Students in this course will learn how to describe and identify typefaces and the periods they represent, and will engage in hands-on typesetting and printing lab sessions using RBS’s type and Vandercook proofing press. At the end of RBS week, each student will present a 5-minute lecture on a typeface of their choice to the class.

In their personal statements, applicants should describe their interest in and experience with typography and printing. Applicants are asked to state their goals for the course and explain how this course might fit into their scholarly and/or creative practice.

Course History

John Kristensen and Katherine McCanless Ruffin co-teach this course.

Course Resources

  • Advance Reading List
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Related Courses


  • John Kristensen
  • Katherine McCanless Ruffin

John Kristensen

Though trained as an architectural historian, John Kristensen found his calling in printing and has for over thirty years been the proprietor of Boston’s Firefly Press, a commercial letterpress printing office and type foundry whose goal 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Kristensen has delivered talks to groups as diverse the Cambridge Historical Society and Save Venice. In 2009 Mr. Kristensen 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 McCanless Ruffin

Katherine M. Ruffin is the Director of the Book Studies Program and a Lecturer in Art at Wellesley College. 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.

Katherine’s 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.”

Katherine teaches the history of the book at the School of Library and Information Science at Simmons University. She also teaches book arts in the Masters of Art Education Program at the Boston University College of Fine Arts. She has published limited editions under her own imprint of Shinola Press since 1994. The School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Alabama hosted a solo exhibition of Katherine’s work in 2016. She has taught letterpress printing at the Center for Book Arts in New York City, Penland School of Crafts, and the Wells College Book Arts Summer Institute.

She is currently a member of the advisory boards for the Program in the History of the Book in American Culture at the American Antiquarian Society and the Bookbinding Program at North Bennet Street School.

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