Printing industry Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Because print has been necessary for businesses throughout American history, the printing industry has been an integral part of American corporate life. Changes in the printing process, including computerization, have revolutionized related industries such as publishing and presented both advantages and challenges to the printing industry.

A large number of innovations have changed the operations of the printing industry. Whereas printing was originally handwork, controlled by the printer, the introduction of the printing press made it an industrial process. Handwork started to be used less commonly after the introduction of letterpress printing, sometime in the fifteenth century. In the letterpress method, moveable type is locked together, pressed against an ink source, and then pressed or rolled onto paper. Benjamin Franklin used a letterpress printer, called the Ramage press, in England in 1725. The Ramage press was made mainly of wood but had some iron parts. This contrasted with a press made by Earl Stanhope in the beginning of the nineteenth century, which was constructed completely of iron. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was home to the 1817 Columbian press. In 1822, Daniel Treadwell invented the first American power press to go into production. Improvements in the inking process came in 1829, with Samuel Rust’s invention of the Washington press. One year later, the Adams press, a press with a stationary platen, was created.Printing industry

Revolving Press

Some of the most influential changes in printing were the result of the invention of the revolving cylinder press, which allowed for the form containing the type to curve around a cylinder that rotated as it printed. Historical accounts disagree as to who invented this type of press. Friedrich König, a German inventor, is credited with one of the first versions in 1810 or 1814. Another version was reportedly produced by D. Napier and Son in 1819. Regardless of its origin, it is generally agreed that the speed of this press greatly surpassed that of the flat press.

After Robert March Hoe designed an improved version of the revolving press in 1843, the rotary press invigorated the Newspaper industrynewspaper industry. The Philadelphia Public Ledger purchased a four-cylinder press in 1845. The Sun (New York) got an eight-cylinder press five years later, and the New York Herald began using a ten-cylinder press in 1857. The ten-cylinder press could print 20,000 one-sided sheets per hour. This was ten times more sheets than the smaller cylinder presses could produce. Stereotype copies of the printed pages were introduced to the newspaper industry in 1861. By 1891, printing presses could print and fold 90,000 four-page papers in an hour. One year later, the printing industry was further transformed when a four-color rotary press was invented.

Linotype and Beyond

The Mergenthaler Linotype machine, invented by Ottmar Mergenthaler, OttmarMergenthaler in 1886, transformed the typesetting process in a way that was roughly equal to the invention of moveable type four centuries earlier. It combined several processes into one keyboard (similar to a typewriter or computer keyboard), allowing one person to machine, typeset, justify, typefound, and type distribute.

Later changes in equipment and processes included the development of photochemical engraving, halftone cuts, color reproduction, clean feeders, folders and trimmers, mechanized bookbinding, and stereotyping for the newspaper industry, which included the standard autoplate. Photoengraving involves the process of etching the image on metal through the use of photographic techniques. It is used to make embossing and stamping dies, printed circuit boards, printing plates, and other print-integrated metal products. Halftone cuts are also related to photography, relying on dot formation to create images. Clean feeders, folders and trimmers, and mechanized bookbinding all sped up the processes involved in printing, while cutting down on the amount of handwork that printers had to do. Phototypesetting became more common in 1947. A few years later, computerized processes began to transform the industry. Digital equipment and communication technologies have further transformed the industry, forcing workers to obtain higher skill levels and creating a need for constant training updates.

Products and Services

The products and services that the printing industry supplies are varied and often depend on each other for a final product. Advertising regularly monopolizes the largest portion of the industry (over a quarter), with packaging, catalogs, varied periodicals, and newspapers following as the largest users. In 2007, books, directories, and stationery each took up an additional 6 percent of the industry’s workload. Because the industry has expanded beyond traditional print sources to include Web design, marketing communication, and other computer-related issues, it is often difficult to define exactly what processes fall under the umbrella of the printing industry. Secondary production, the printing jobs that are completed by companies outside of the printing industry, is not included in printing industry figures.

As of 2006, the worth of the products and services provided per year was estimated to be around $165 billion dollars. Approximately one million laborers were employed by almost 40,000 organizations. In 2004, the number of printing enterprises was about three thousand higher; however, downsizing and closings have negatively affected many segments of the industry.


The printing industry has been facing a number of challenges. Smaller companies have been consolidated into larger conglomerates covering broader geographical areas. Also, the number of employees in the industry has been falling. Aging employees have left the workplace, and fewer new students have been entering traditional printing programs in educational institutions, instead preferring to enroll in computer and graphic design programs. Increased mechanization of production equipment has meant fewer jobs are available. Cost cutting has resulted in downsizing, often through plant closures or outsourcing (using outside printing facilities, often overseas).

Increased buyer power (partially resulting from the ease of ordering and comparing prices through the Internet) has forced American printers to be competitive against other American and international companies. Printing companies must purchase new equipment and retrain workers to keep up with the technological advancements necessary to meet customers’ expectations. The amount of printed material needed has also dropped, as customers increasingly make use of other media options. Electronic files have replaced many items that were traditionally printed. For printing companies to compete with electronic options, they must increase the perceived value of print items, possibly through wider product choices.

In the latter part of the twentieth century, the widespread ownership of powerful personal computers and the advent of Desktop publishingdesktop publishing allowed individuals to self-produce products that were previously the work of printers. Computerization has lowered the number of printed pages that are produced in many industries. For example, many people are printing their own cards and invitations from home rather than hiring a printing company to do the work. Also, whereas once companies would have asked printers to create a mock-up or draft of a finished product (such as reports, advertisements, and posters), they increasingly use computer-generated drafts and rely on printers only for the final product.


Printing Unions;printing industryunions formed after large industries began taking over printing businesses from master printers. In 1852, the National Typographical Union (which became the International Typographical Union, or ITU, in 1869), was formed. Early members included bookbinders, photoengravers, pressmen, stereotypers, and electrotypers. Separate unions formed as these groups broke away from the ITU. Pressmen created the International Printing Pressman’s Union (IPPU) in 1889, which became the International Printing Pressmen and Assistants Union in 1896. In 1892, the International Brotherhood of Bookbinders (IBB) left the ITU as machinery began to do the work that had formerly been done by hand. In 1901, the stereotypers and electrotypers formed the International Stereotypers and Electrotypers Union, and in 1904, the photoengravers formed the International Photoengravers Union.

The Amalgamated Lithographers Union attributes its origins to a group of New Jersey workers who joined together in 1882. A number of small groups from the East and Midwest united into the National Association of Lithographers of the United States and Canada four years later, modifying their name three times: the Lithographers’ International Protective and Insurance Association of the United States and Canada, the Lithographers’ International Protective and Beneficial Association, and finally the Amalgamated Lithographers of America in 1915.

As technological advances revolutionized the industry, further changes were made in the unions. The smaller unions began reuniting in the period between 1964 and 1983. In 2005, these smaller groups reunited to form the Graphic Communications Conference of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (GCC/IBT).

Further Reading
  • Baines, Phil, and Andrew Haslam. Type and Typography. New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 2002. Fully illustrated synopsis of the definition, function, form, manufacture, design, structure, and conventions of typography in the printing industry.
  • Blackwell, Lewis. Twentieth Century Type. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2004. Focuses on the concerns of typography through history. Outlines and illustrates the changes and challenges in typography for each decade of the twentieth century.
  • Fawcett-Tang, Roger. New Typographic Design. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2007. Looks at type in terms of form, image, and experiment, as well as in motion. Colorful illustrations offer strong examples of each aspect discussed.
  • Kirschenbaum, Valerie. Goodbye Gutenberg: Hello to a New Generation of Readers and Writers. New York: Global Renaissance Society, 2005. Approaches the issue of declining readership by sharing a combination of artwork pieces that illustrate both old-style handprinting from around the world and newer graphic designs. Artistically beautiful volume that visually captivates while narrating the story of the written word.
  • Michelson, Bruce. Printer’s Devil: Mark Twain and the American Publishing Revolution. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. Provides an original but historical overview of the printing industry through a focused biography of Mark Twain’s own experiences in the printing industry–as both a typesetter and a book publisher. Gives details of the equipment and processes Twain used when he was a printing apprentice as well as the investments in printing machinery of his adult years.
  • Strauss, Victor. The Printing Industry: An Introduction to Its Many Branches, Processes, and Products. Washington, D.C.: Printing Industries of America, 1967. Details the multiple purposes of the printing industry. Starts with printing processes and methods, moves through a discussion of printing image carriers, printing presses, binding, and finishing, and continues through art and copy preparation, among varied additional topics.

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Book publishing

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Labor history

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Newspaper industry

Categories: History