The Kelsey Excelsior: A Brief Ode to the Letterpress & Memory of James Trissel

Posted by Chris Wray on May 4, 2009 in essays |

The Kelsey letterpress represents a last modern vestige of early printing technology. Based on Gutenberg’sicon_external_link movable type invention of the fifteenth century, the letterpress uses individually cast, reusable letters set together letter-by-letter, word-by-word to form blocks of text that are pressed onto wet paper. With great patience and skill, the letterpress page can become a work of beauty—combining the visual and literary arts.

Kelsey Excelsior 5 x 8 tabletop letterpress

Kelsey Excelsior 5 x 8 tabletop letterpress

As hobbyists, my parents purchased a Kelsey Excelsior 5×8 tabletop letterpress during the late 1950s. Together they created personalized stationery, greeting cards, and even my birth announcement. These handmade ephemera represented the state-of-the-art in personal desktop publishing during the mid-twentieth century.

I developed my appreciation for the letterpress and book arts during my freshman year at Colorado College. I spent many hours hand setting type for poetry broadsides and limited edition books under the guidance of Jim Trissel, founder and proprietor of the Press at Colorado College from 1977 until his death in 1999.

Today, as a marketing manager for a hi-tech company, I am consumed with internet communications: search optimization, web analytics, and the obsession for “sticky” web content—topics seemingly far afield from the aesthetics and tactile beauty of the letterpress. Yet Jim’s mentoring taught me that the art of the letterpress is not something to be rushed. It is carefully planned and executed in a deliberate and precise manner. Fine letterpress work is as much science as it is art. Jim instilled in me a sensibility for good typography and an understanding of a well-balanced page—skills that I invoke daily as a professional designer.

While the pervasiveness of electronic communication calls into question the future of the printed word, I am certain the letterpress arts will endure for they educate and inspire. They are art forms born of a guild tradition that brought forth matchless beauty from press beds beaded in sweat and perfumed by mineral spirits.

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Bill Peters
May 5, 2009 at 11:08 pm

Your email came in about your new blog. Fantastic. When I was in Jr High, I operated the Kelsey letterpress in Shop class. I just told your Dad that I spent lots of time setting print in the galley. The lead did not ruin my “inollijence….”

I, too, just started a blog devoted to classical music events in the San Gabriel Valley in California. Check it out. The site was developed for me by a newspaper I write for. Their site is and mine is

I will check in with your site to keep tabs on you.

Bill Peters

May 6, 2009 at 9:57 am

Fascinating stuff.

In the rush to digitize everything we must remember that expression is not just an exchange but an experience – and we must not rob this experience of all its nuances.

Your blog feed is added to my Google page – I’ll be looking out for more.

Chris Wray
May 6, 2009 at 10:15 am

Many thanks Bill and Farid for your comments. Bill–I look forward to following your classical music blog. Hope your stay in Colorado was fun!

Farid–your observation is spot-on. Process is equally as important–sometimes more important–than the end product. I found that my time engaged with the letterpress and bookarts in general, raised my level of appreciation for literature and poetry. And coming full-circle, I find that blog writing and the resulting dialogue is energizing and rewarding in much the same way. What an awesome medium for sharing in a global discourse! Many thanks for adding my blog feed to your Google page.

Best to all, C.

Ben Trissel
Jun 8, 2009 at 6:42 pm

Chris –

I too spent countless hours at The Press at Colorado College, setting type, pulling pages, and throwing type back into cases only to do everything all over again the next day. My experience at the press has certainly colored my outlook on how content is presented and ‘driven’ and it certainly colors my outlook on how new technologies can take advantage of the aged rules of typography and design.

I hope you are well. It’s nice to see another Press Rat doing good works.

Chris Wray
Jun 8, 2009 at 7:03 pm

Ben, thanks for your comments! Your dad was a huge influence in my life and ultimately my career path. As my grad school design prof said to me matter-of-factly, “Design is a life sentence.” We are both very fortunate to have experienced old and new media.



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