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.
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.
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