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Screen Printing's Story Is Finally Told

(April 2014) posted on Thu May 29, 2014

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.

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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 [1]. Others have pointed to Japanese stencil prints [2] and the open stencils used in Europe and America to decorate building facades [3], which also date from the 19th century. But a 1902 patent filed by Antoine Véricel for a carousel-like, multicolor textile-printing machine [4] 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 [7], produced by The Reproduction Company of New York City.


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