The History of Printing in San Francisco
Printed History in San Francisco
The world of fine printing has hubs across the globe, but in the United States, one of the most impactful throughout history has been San Francisco. From the settling of the country through to the renaissance given its name by the city, San Francisco has been home to printers and presses that have changed the world through the centuries. Here’s what you need to know about the history of printing in San Francisco.
The Gold Rush and Printing Boom
The printing press has been around since at least the mid-800s AD, having originated in China and been used there for centuries before the concept was introduced to the Western world by German goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg, who began working with printing machines in the 1400s and created his version - the Gutenberg press - which would become commercially available in the 1450s.
As such, by the time the United States was established and the settlement of California (outside of native inhabitance) began in the 1800s, printing was already a popular and highly-profitable industry around the world with dedicated fine print shops in every major country distributing newspapers, books, and other printed goods to the general populace at relatively reasonable prices.
The largest hub for this was San Francisco, energized by the Gold Rush. Printing became a major industry in California in the wake of the 1849 Gold Rush. Printers were relied upon to spread the news of good local caches and land available for claim to both residents and immigrants. One of the most prolific printers of the era was James W. Towne, a founder of Towne and Bacon. Towne and Bacon operated out of San Francisco between 1852 and 1868 and produced a massive number of publications before an earthquake devastated much of the city, including their shop. Post-quake, Towne went on to create a successful paper company.
By the early 1870s, San Francisco had 26 registered 46 print shops including six power press shops alongside three typefounders. These numbers continued to grow over the rest of the century until San Francisco was a literary hub in California and the Western United States, stocked enough to rival New York on the East coast.
The printing industry wasn’t exclusive to men, either. San Francisco had a bustling printing industry for women starting as early as the 1860s. In fact, the city became home to the Women’s Co-operative Printing Union in the 1870s, which produced women-run publications until a fire destroyed the establishment shortly before the earthquake in 1906. By the 1920s, San Francisco was recognized as a world printing center and a seat of the industry in the country.
Depression Era and Post-War Printing
However, as with most other industries, the printing industry in San Francisco was utterly devastated by the Great Depression. The crash of the stock market ruined the businesses of many printing establishments. Still, this dramatic decline in profitability did not stop innovation in the market, as it was during this period that the first color printings began appearing on the West Coast, including the first piece for Sunset Magazine created in the Independent Press Room of 300 Broadway. During the 1930s and onward into the middle of the century, the printing industry took on a less formal tone.
Much of the work created during this time was less stylized than it had been previously and more plainly designed, making it more accessible to wider audiences for a lower cost. That being said, there were definite moves to have books seen as an art rather than a simple commodity; the work of Arthur Dow was upheld by the popular firm Johnk & Seeger and reprinted in elaborate designs to show their prowess.
Going into the late 1930s and the 1940s, the publishing industry in San Francisco shifted to more modern, individualistic styles, though the scene thinned significantly as the World Wars progressed and resources turned to the war efforts. It was kept mobile by fine printing outlets that worked for artistic and high-end releases. This was the norm until roughly the early 1950s.
The San Francisco Renaissance
Beginning in the 1950s, the Western United States, especially California, experienced a sort of cultural renaissance. New styles of poetry, artwork, literature, and philosophical arguments were cropping up across the region thanks to innovators such as Kenneth Rexroth. The movement was largely inspired by the Cold War and the Space Race, contemplating the role of humanity in the larger universe.
The movement was named the San Francisco Renaissance thanks to its base in the Golden City. Works from notable names like Gillick Pres and UC Press began printing works outside of the “fine printing” moniker and traditional style to make them more appealing to modern audiences, and indeed, many of these pieces became classic collectibles for literary and printing enthusiasts due to their unique designs and turning-point status. The San Francisco Renaissance lasted through the end of the 1960s.
Modern Printing in San Francisco
Today’s San Francisco is still a major hub for fine printing in the United States, with classical and historical printers scattered around the city for tourists and locals alike to enjoy. There are frequent exhibits discussing the history of printing in the state and outside of it, displaying classical pieces from around the world. Exhibitors include the University of San Francisco College of Arts and Sciences, which frequently hosts galleries exploring different areas of the city’s printing history. For example, in 2015, they held an exhibit showcasing the history of the printing press itself, referring to it as “the Internet of its day.”
Interested in historic printing? Simply looking for a beautiful space for your next corporate event, gallery, or special occasion? The Box SF has exactly what you need. Located in the building formerly known as William Randolph Hearst Printing Plant and dating back to 1926, The Box SF is fully renovated without losing any of the classical, antique flair of its location. It includes three floors of meeting spaces including a historic letterpress printing shop as well as a hidden speakeasy for special events.
For the general public, the Box SF is proud to present The Pressroom and Mercantile, an antique printed matter store with presses dating back to 1838 that are fully restored and functional. Plan your event with The Box SF today to engage with the printing history of San Francisco and the World in new and delightful ways. This one of a kind Store with its stunning Event Spaces and Meeting Rooms are sure to delight!
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