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: 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.
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