Printing technology that leaves this grayed, crisp effect?

I have been reading a nice old edition of The Sun Also Rises, by Hemingway. The printing has a peculiar effect, to my eye, which I'm trying to understand.

Namely, this: the type appears somewhat grayish,like a 60% or 70% gray, consistently throughout the book. Looking at the title page and the chapter heads, where the strokes are a bit wider, I can see it is slightly uneven, and also that the very edges of the letters are slightly crisper and darker. It gives a feeling of letterpress, although I'm sure it wasn't printed that way. Certainly there is no impression as would be left by a heavy press. And anyway, it is a mass-produced edition. The text is very pleasant because of this color.

How might this have been printed? With what technology, I mean? Something that would leave those crisp edges but not any depressions in the paper surface. Would the ink have faded, or was it always so gray?

It comes from Charles Scribner's Sons in the USA. It doesn't have a page of library data (to my surprise) but it does say the copyright was renewed by the author in 1954. I would imagine it was printed sometime within the 10 years following that.

It doesn't matter, but to shore up the account: the typeface is something very much like Caledonia, although I haven't detected the exact variant, and I think the entire book is in the one face—title page and all. There's no colophon or anything of ceremony. There appears to be some sticky matter on the inside front cover and first leaf, as if it has been a library book or something—but it's very well-preserved if it was ever in a library.

Karl Stange's picture

Could you upload some photos?

Andreas Stötzner's picture

Sounds like just a very mousy offset print.

kentlew's picture

Actually, if it was printed in proximity to 1954 it could still be letterpress. Trade books were printed by letterpress into the 1960s. I don’t recall exactly when offset lithography took over as the norm, but this Hemingway edition sounds like it would have come out in the transition period.

The Library of Congress didn’t introduce the Cataloging-in-Publication data system until around 1971, so the lack of library data doesn’t necessarily help narrow things down.

The lack of any noticeable impression does not rule out letterpress. Traditionally, the goal of a trade printer was a “kiss” impression; the deep impression favored in today’s trends was considered off-standard workmanship back in the day.

But usually letterpress run with thin ink on hard paper creates an impression that’s slightly darker in the middle and gray at the edges, not the other way around.

Andreas may be right that this is a mousy offset printing, and that an inferior, thin ink has pooled at the edges.

A good closeup scan might help determine more definitively.

Bert Vanderveen's picture

For really big press runs you would have used rotogravure at that time. That is the process used by LIFE and National Geographic.

hrant's picture

the deep impression favored in today’s trends was considered off-standard workmanship back in the day.

And it will remain tacky forever.

Gag me with a composing stick:


Paul Cutler's picture

I used to run a Miehle vertical letterpress many years ago. What is described in that article is not printing, it's debossing.


Nick Shinn's picture

Anything like this?

kentlew's picture

Nick — The O.P. described “the very edges of the letters are slightly crisper and darker,” and it is the latter characterization that is a little confusing. Usually any slight pooling pulled toward the middle as the paper left the type surface, as exhibited in your example, and thus slightly grayer around the edges, not darker.

Although, come to think of it, there is sometimes that very slight edge definition, as seen along the inside upper right on the counter of the ‘D’ in your example. Maybe that’s the “darker” that he’s referencing.

PublishingMojo's picture

You may be looking at some poor letterpress printing. If the printer didn't get the impression or the ink density quite right, the ink may have spread too thin on the face of the letters, creating the grayish, uneven color you describe, and excess ink may have been squeezed out to form the slightly darker edges.

That may also explain why it's almost Caledonia but not an exact match. If ink were squeezed to the edges, all the letters would appear slightly heavier. In a face like Caledonia, which has a high contrast between thick and thin strokes, the ink spread would have a dramatically greater effect on the hairline strokes than on the thick strokes, making it look a lot less Caledonian.

ezrakilty's picture

Hi folks, sorry for the long pause. And thanks for your answers, which were edifying. Nick's example is interesting, and although it looks different, it does show a crisp edge.

Here's a scan of a chapter head. When I saw this magnification I could barely believe just how pronounced the effect is. Doesn't it almost look like there is an extra hairline printing around the edge?

Maybe it is a case of thin ink being squeezed to the edges, as Mojo suggested.

ezrakilty's picture

By the way, I found this old Typophile thread asking about the face another edition was printed in.

It's spooky, because the image given there has a different typeface than my edition (for one thing, that question mark is completely different), but has exactly the same line breaks; and it has the small-caps heading and "THE END" in just about the same position. Yet, the page break does not fall in the same place! My final page starts with "Down-stairs..." Spooky...

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