Screen Printing's Story Is Finally Told
A new book traces the origins of screen printing to the US at the dawn of the 20th century, and follows the process as it flourished and spread across the world through World War II.
The question of how and when screen printing began has long been one of the greatest mysteries in the graphic arts. One common misconception—a story you may have heard the first time you saw someone pulling a squeegee—is that the process goes back centuries to ancient China or Japan. In fact, it turns out that screen printing is just over than a century old, with distinctly American roots and a clandestine past filled with enough colorful characters, legal maneuvering, and plot twists for a prime-time drama.
This fascinating story has come to light through the recently published book, A History of Screen Printing: How an Art Evolved into an Industry. Painstakingly researched and gorgeously illustrated, the book traces the development of screen printing in the first half of the 20th century, from the first screen-printed pennants and display cards to the industrialization of the industry in the years following World War II.
In his foreword, Richard S. Fields, curator emeritus of prints, drawings, and photographs for Yale University Art Gallery calls the book a definitive, comprehensive history of the medium. “Anyone who but skims through these pages will gasp at the heretofore unimagined visual resources that have been gathered…(with) hundreds of images that had all but disappeared from the public record.” Enjoy a sampling of this marvelous book and meet its inquisitive author.
Before Screen Printing
Some have speculated that screen printing developed from the stencil duplicating machines of the late 19th century, such as the Edison Mimeograph and Gestetner’s Neo-Cyclostyle . Others have pointed to Japanese stencil prints  and the open stencils used in Europe and America to decorate building facades , which also date from the 19th century. But a 1902 patent filed by Antoine Véricel for a carousel-like, multicolor textile-printing machine  is the clearest antecedent.
Early Screen Printing on Pennants
Felt pennants [5 and 6], immensely popular in the early 20th century, were most likely the first items to be screen printed. The earliest known examples come from New York and the Midwestern US, such as the example at , produced by The Reproduction Company of New York City.
Velvetone: The First Graphics Screen Printer?
Around 1912 in San Francisco, a handful of pioneers adapted the pennant-printing process to image signs, posters, and more. Chief among these innovators was the Brant & Garner Company , in the earliest known photo showing the screen-printing process. Later known as the Velvetone Poster Co., the company was an innovator in developing advertising displays  and other printed products, as showcased in early exhibitions of screen-printed products . The company remained an innovator into the 1970s and was finally liquidated in 1991.
Selectasine: Printing Pioneers Turned Patent Enforcers
Founded to compete with Brant & Garner in 1915, Selectasine was initially a printing pioneer, producing the first large-format multisheet screen-printed poster  in 1916, and the booklet cover of a 1917 advertising fair in San Francisco . But the company saw a bigger opportunity to patent a single-screen version of the new printing process , selling licenses to printing businesses around the world. Selectasine also marketed some of the first screen-printing presses , including the first automatic cylinder presses in 1924 . With the advent of hand-cut stencil films, the process and its patents were obsolete by the mid 1930s.
Growth During the Great Depression
Screen printing grew dramatically during the Great Depression, thanks in part to the US government’s Works Projects Administration (WPA). Government-run printing plants  produced over 300,000 posters  over an 18-month period. Fine-art serigraphy  also grew during this period as government contracts were awarded to thousands of artists across the country.
Due to its versatility, screen printing was rapidly adapted to a host of other applications including enamel signage , glass cups and bottles , textiles , and decals .
Screen Printing During World War II
Screen printing was used extensively by the military during World War II  to produce propaganda posters , first-aid kits, decals for aircraft, and the first printed circuits . The government also gave thousands of military personnel the training they would need to join the rapidly growing industry after the war . A soldier works from a print shop in newly liberated France near the end of the war .
Meet the Author: Guido Lengwiler
See if this story sounds familiar: A young man graduates from art school, stumbles on the screen-printing process as an extension of his painting, and eventually finds himself working for a commercial printing business. This accidental path to screen printing that Guido Lengwiler took in Zurich 30 years ago isn’t unusual—you can find a similar tale behind most of the established companies in our industry. But his life took a pronounced left turn when he realized that one of his mentors had worked for a company that had been an early pioneer of screen printing in Europe. His curiosity about that connection started a quest for information that would lead him to the earliest days of screen printing and how it spread across the world. We caught up with Lengwiler via e-mail and asked him to share his improbable story.
SP: Why did the history of screen printing interest you as an author?
GL: I've always been interested in history. But as far as screen printing was concerned, that was a coincidence. In the mid 1980s, when I was working as a screen printer with Fred Birchler in Zurich, he would often talk about his apprenticeship at a small company called Serico in 1949, with Hans Caspar Ulrich, who was the owner then. Serico was founded in 1926 and it still exists today. So I got in touch with the current owner of Serico, Alfred Eich, and he had records from Ulrich's time. (Ulrich died in 1950.) Alfred then put me in touch with Ulrich's son. The family, it turned out, had these handwritten notes by Ulrich, which were unique accounts of the early years of screen printing. With funding from the Swiss bolting cloth manufacturers, Ulrich spent three months traveling around the United States to study the process in 1927. He visited the most important screen-printing businesses in the country, from New York to California, and he took notes. So then my research moved on to America. It all involved coincidences and luck.
But I wasn't planning on writing a book originally. The research was always a journey into the unknown. It took some time before the idea of publishing anything came up, after it became clear to us that we were probably holding unique historical material in our hands.
SP: The most common misconception about screen printing is that it evolved from Japanese hair stencils of the 15th century. Others have argued that the stencil duplication machines of the late 19th century were the beginning. Your book refutes both arguments, but the specifics of who really created the process and when remain a mystery. Do you think the answer to that question will ever be known?
GL: The assumption that the screen-printing technique was a refinement of processes that originated in Asia probably got its start in the early 1930s in the first American books on the subject. The authors started off with a short overview of historical stenciling techniques, which also included the ancient Japanese ones. But they clearly differentiated those older techniques from the modern screen-printing process. In the years and decades that followed, there were many other publications about screen printing, and soon the distinction between the old stenciling techniques from Asia and the modern screen-printing process of the 20th century got blurred. By the post-World War II period, people already believed, with some amount of pride, that screen printing originated with the "ancient Chinese" or in Japan.
Yes, the old stencil duplicators used in offices did work in somewhat the same way as screen printing. But at the same time, in the late 19th century, stencils like that were also used for decorating walls or textiles. Then about 20 years passed—a long time!—and screen printing as we know it today appeared. I don't think screen printing was an "invention." It was something that evolved. Today, we can see the broad outlines of that evolution, but a lot of it is still obscure.
SP: By the second half of the 20th century, the prevailing opinion in the industry was that “advanced” screen-printing technology was coming from Europe. Yet the process had distinctly American origins, didn’t it?
GL: Yes, that's right. An Englishman named Samuel Simon, who got a patent in 1907, is mentioned over and over as the "inventor" of screen printing. I found that puzzling, because there were similar patents in both Europe and America years before his. The screen-printing process did not originate in Europe. It clearly developed in the United States at the beginning of the 20th century. After World War I, it was introduced in Canada and Australia, and then reached Europe in the mid 1920s.
SP: It’s apparent that you put an exhaustive amount of research into the book. The lack of source material must have made the process that much more painstaking. How long did it take you to compile the research and write the manuscript?
GL: I don't remember exactly anymore. I found some correspondence from 2001 and the research was already in full swing by then. I guess the whole thing started around 1998, and research on some of the details went on until just before we went to press, which was in the spring of 2013. I think you can look at it as a form of archeology: You find a dinosaur bone and start digging. The more you find, the more you figure out about what this "critter" must have looked like.
One lucky thing was that I purchased copies of Signs of the Times from 1919 to 1950 from antiquarian booksellers in the United States. The early issues are very rare. I bought them for just under 5000 francs—and nearly passed out when the Basel customs office called and asked where they should deliver my 300 pounds of books! Then it took me about two years to read through that huge amount of material.
And locating the descendants of the American pioneers wasn't all that simple. It sounds kind of morbid, but I had to buy copies of their death certificates—more than 100 of them. They list a witness, along with the address—usually the dead person's wife or a child. For example, it took two years to find the descendants of Jacob Steinman, who died in 1933. His daughter had changed her name twice over the years and the official sources had the wrong birthdate for her. But for the simpler cases, it only took three to six months.
The families were very helpful, even though they didn't know me at all. To this day, I've never been to America. Some of the families had very extensive records; others just had a few photos. Sometimes it was the other way around, and I knew more than the family did. Of course, I was happy to share my documents with them. This led to some very kind interactions and even friendships.
SP: Can you point to one thing you discovered in your research that surprised you the most?
GL: Yes, what surprised me the most was that when graphic screen printing was being developed around 1915 in San Francisco, the lithography industry there invested in the new process and supported it. So screen printing was incorporated into the graphics industry early on.
It was also interesting to see that the development of the process can't be separated from general political and economic history. The disastrous effects of World War I were felt much more strongly in Europe than in the United States. America recovered quickly, and in the 1920s the economy soon got back up to speed, until the stock market crash in 1929. The Great Depression hit screen printing while it was in its infancy in Europe, but in America the process was already fully developed and didn't suffer as much. It even spread into new fields during the Depression—just because it was cheap and flexible—in the textile industry, for example, and in fine art.
Guido Lengwiler's definitive history of screen printing is available through ST Media Group. For more information, visit www.stmediagroupintl.com/books.