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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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