Documenting the Screen Scene

Not too many manufacturing processes last 100 years in this fast-paced and ever evolving world.

Happy 100th birthday, screen printing! Although that’s not technically true, it’s close enough. Not too many manufacturing processes last 100 years in this fast-paced and ever evolving world. Ours remains endemic in human culture, used in the manufacturing of consumer products from T-shirts to touchscreens and everything in between, so there’s no danger of it disappearing from use any time soon, regardless of what the digital prophets and their salespeople tell everyone. Ever wonder where and how it all started? There’s a lot more than a few paragraphs on Wikipedia to the story, but there has never been a book on the subject. Until now.

The new book, “History of Screen Printing—How an Art Evolved Into an Industry,” tells the tale. Written by Swiss author Guido Lengwiler, and available this fall in English from ST Books, it has what is considered to be the first photograph of a screen-printing operation, taken in 1913. From this shop, Brant & Garner Studio on Market St. in San Francisco, and a few other pioneers of the process clustered in California, grew the industries we are all part of today. Concentrating on the period between the late 1800s up to the end of WW II, the book is full of previously unpublished information, stories, and photos. Although this is a historical text, cross-referenced with sources, it reads like an adventure novel at times, and has the look of an art book.

The DNA of those first shops spread internationally in the 1920s and found new markets and new uses through the 1930s. It spawned the printed-electronics industry and played a significant role in WWII on all sides. The book traces how it happened, with firsthand accounts uncovered through meticulous research, tracking down and interviewing family members of the pioneers of the process throughout the world.

Connecting thousands of bits of information into a well written narrative is a challenge, but Lengwiler, a teacher of screen printing, has made sense of it all by painting a clear picture of what came before, and how screen printing arrived just as the American advertising industry began. One drove the other. Some of the chapters include 19th and 20th century stenciling techniques, Origins of the Process in the USA, How it Spread from the USA to Europe, Technical Developments, World War II, Specialty Applications, and a List of Patents. Richard S. Field, retired professor at Yale and a noted author of many books on art and biographies of artists writes “ ….what a wonderful, much needed, and long overdue book this is….”

Signs of the Times and Screen Printing (then known as Screen Process) were both early chroniclers of its growth, and the book has lots of old ads and pictures. One name readers will still recognize is Nazdar, one of the industry sponsors who have helped to make the project a reality. The book was made possible with the early encouragement and support of Christophe Tobler, CEO of Sefar, and the late Richard Eisenbeiss and his son David from Kiwo/Ulano, Mike Fox from Nazdar, Rich Hoffman from M&R, Ryan Moor from Ryonet, SGIA, and a number of other companies. Members of the ASPT also stepped up to help make the book a reality.

The Selectasine Process, a patented version of screen printing, was the first to come with instruction books, supplies, and even automated presses back in the 1920s. Through aggressive salesmanship to printers, sign shops, and manufacturing companies, the knowledge spread. Due to low startup costs compared to other printing processes, plus adaptability to an ever widening range of substrates and products, screen printing caught on. Selectasine eventually fell by the wayside, but not before the process had been adapted worldwide, all in a few short years. Many of the families that helped Lengwiler in his research found old photos and diaries and made them available for inclusion in the book. In some cases, Guido was able to provide descendants new information about their relatives

It’s these connections being lost to the past that spurred the author to start his research in 1998. As a young screen printer in Switzerland, Lengwiler worked for a man who had worked for Hans Casper Ulrich in the 1940s, and told screen-printing stories from the good old days. Ulrich, an artist and trained lithographer, had gone to the USA in the 1920s on behalf of the Swiss bolting-cloth industry—the members of which wanted to know why a small group of artists, sign shops, and manufacturers in the USA were buying up ever increasing amounts of their silk fabrics. Ulrich learned the basics from the Americans, kept copious notes, then brought the process back to Europe and continued to refine it, and then spread it through supply company Serico, which is still in business today.

Today’s industries built around large-format signage and garment screen printing, along with other businesses using the process to make consumer goods, including high-tech manufacturing sectors like solar and fuel cells, electronic products, automotive, medical, glass and ceramic—did we miss anyone? Probably. The list is ever expanding, and Lengwiler has rescued this forgotten and rapidly disappearing history of the birth of the printing process we all use today.

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