Documenting the Screen Scene: ‘A History of Screen Printing’

New book explores how an art evolved into an industry.

Happy 100th birthday, screenprinting!

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.

A 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 new “silk screen 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 Concentrating on the period between the late 1800s up to the end of WW II, the book is full of previously unpublished information, stories, and lots of amazing photos. Although this is an historical text, properly 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 silk-screen 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 first-hand 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 screenprinting – has made sense of it all by painting a clear picture of what came before, and how screenprinting arrived just as the American advertising industry began. One drove the other.

The “Selectasine Process,” a patented version of screenprinting, 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 an adaptability to an ever widening range of substrates and products, silk-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 (and in some cases, Lengwiler 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 screenprinter in Switzerland, Lengwiler worked for a man who himself had worked for Hans Casper Ulrich in the 1940s, and told screenprinting adventure 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, who wanted to know why a small group of artists, signshops, and manufacturers in the US were buying up ever increasing amounts of their silk fabrics mostly used in flour mills for sifting. 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, of course, screen printing is used in a variety of markets and industries – from high-tech manufacturing sectors like the solar and fuel cell industries and the electronic products industry to the automotive industry, medical, glass and ceramic applications, and much more. The list is ever expanding, and Lengwiler has rescued this largely forgotten and rapidly disappearing history of the birth of the printing process we all now use.

Some of the book’s 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; a list of patents; and much more. The hardcover book “weighs in” at 6 pounds and comprises more than 500 pages, measuring 12.2 x 9.8 x 4 inches.

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….”

For some peeks inside History of Screen Printing – How an Art Evolved Into an Industry, visit this facebook page.

The book is now available from the ST Media bookstore. Click here for purchase. 
 

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