Yo dawg I heard you like printing

Being sort of the resident print expert over at SABR Baseball Cards has resulted in me getting tagged into other print-related discussions online. It also meant that people like Jason have started to alert me about non-baseball-related sets that I should be interested in from a printing point of view.

The most-interesting of those sets was manufactured in 1906 by Liebig’s Extract of Meat Company. Liebig was a massive producer of trade cards around the turn of the 19th century. Most of these appear to have been printed through chromolithography. There were enough sets produced by Liebig and its ilk that in some parts of the world it appears that trading cards are still known as chromos.*

*Where trading cards are known as “barajitas” in Latin America, they’re known as “cromos” in Spain.

Liebig sets are wonderfully printed and fantastically varied in subject much in the same way that American and British Tobacco cards depict subject matter that runs the gamut from sports to geography to history to anthropology to science and nature. The key difference is that the Liebig cards are huge—much larger than the traditional baseball card size and close to four times the size of a tobacco card. As a result the artwork can be much more detailed and informative.

Jason had specifically informed me about a set which details the production of the cards themselves both through illustration and print progressives which demonstrate how the image looks as each ink is added. This set immediately became something I’d occasionally search for on ebay. It’s there but not cheap. While some pre-war cards are affordable, this did not look to be such a case. Jason however suggested he had a source where it was way cheaper and offered a trade where I’d help out with some fast graphic design expertise in exchange for him sending me the set. So I did. And he did.

The cards arrived last weekend and they’re wonderful. I received the French issue* which, while I can’t read French, I have enough experience doing tech support and QA on non-English computers that I can sort of muddle my way through a lot of romance and germanic languages now.

*There are Italian and German versions as well.

They’re in remarkably good shape for being the oldest cards in my collection* and the depth of the printing is indeed fantastic. Chromolithography looks so much different than modern offset printing. No halftone line screens although there are dot patterns in the different inks. Also there are 14 different inks used on these cards and the resulting images have much different tones than anything you’ll get with modern four-color offset printing.

*Though not the oldest cards in the household. That honor is held by a 1901 T-175 Heroes of the Spanish American War card of Albert Beveridge which is in my wife’s collection.

Anyway, because these cards themselves describe how they’re made I’ll take each card one by one.

Card number one is titled, “The artist composes the subject.” The back, rather than going into the detail of this step chooses to offer a brief description of lithography itself. It was invented in 1796 by Alois Senefelder. It’s useful in reproducing signs, designs, colors, etc. from an original artwork. Liebig works with many artists to create all kinds of chromos.

The front shows an artist whose work gives a hint at the diverse nature of Liebig’s subjects. The progressive though is what’s most interesting to me since it shows the first three inks (two colors and gold) that get printed.

I’m intrigued that the gold goes down first. Metallic inks are opaque so the order they get printed can make a big difference in how things look. In modern printing they usually go down first because they’re denser but sometimes they get thrown on last because they cover up everything else.*

*I always had to check with the pressman on how he wanted things to be trapped.

With this century-old printing, the ink order appears to generally be reversed. Where on modern multi-ink printing presses the dark colors go down first for density reasons, back when colors were printed one at a time you printed the lightest colors first so you could register them while you could still see them on the press sheet. Starting with the yellows and light tans produces a faint image but one where you can still distinguish the inks from each other.

Card two, “Extraction of the lithographic stones.” Lithography requires a specific kind of fine-grained limestone.* As this card specifies, the stones are from a Jurassic deposit found in Solnhofen, Bavaria** but can also be found in France in Le Vigan, Gard. They can also be found in America and England albeit of a lesser quality than the Solnhofen stone. The stones are cut to be 5 to 10 centimeters thick and ground flat. They’re colored yellow-grey and on occasion blue-grey—which indicates a stone that’s especially suited for printing fine details.

*Hence the “lith” portion of the name of the medium. This is literally writing with stones.

**Non-printing nerds may know of this deposit and quarry as the location where Archaeopteryx was discovered and as the single source of all Archaeopteryx fossils. And yes this is why one Archaeopteryx species’s scientific name is Archaeopteryx lithographica.

The image on the front presumably shows a picture of the Solnhofen quarry and shows how the limestone in the quarry guides the thickness of the slabs that get cut. To print these cards you’d need fourteen different slabs.

The progressive has added light cyan and a darker tan. Already Mr Liebig’s face is starting to look real with the blue providing a decent amount of shadow detail. The gold is no longer showing up on the list but we’re at five inks used now.

Card three, “Lithographic reproduction,” contains a bunch of details about how lithography actually works. A reversed image has to be drawn using special oils on a polished stone. With colored subjects, the design has to be drawn on multiple stones, one stone for each color although when inks overlap even more colors can be produced. Nothing I can make sense of as for how the different color components are determined though.

This description finally starts to get into the actual process of how lithography actually works. At it’s heart it’s just the oil and water principle. The design gets drawn on the stone in oil or grease. The stone is wetted. Water doesn’t stick to the design. The stone is then inked. Ink is oil based, sticks to the design, but doesn’t stick to the water. Then the paper is pressed against the stone and takes the ink.

The image shows a room with multiple artisans each drawing on a lithographic stone. Note that everyone’s working on a large-scale lithograph rather than something card sized.

The progressive meanwhile has added a brown and a light magenta ink, taking our total to 7 inks used and giving Mr. Liebig a little flush in his cheeks.

Card 4, “Printing proofs.” After the stones have the grease drawing on them they’re cleaned with Nitric Acid.* This cleaning allows the non-oily parts of the stone to accept and hold water so only the oily parts attract the ink. Before the final printing, progressive color proofs (which will look very much like the progressive portraits of Mr. Liebig) are run beginning witt the lightest colors and ending with the darkest.

*Diluted since limestone aka Calcium Carbonate and concentrated acid will react.

It’s nice to see my observation about the progressive proofs being explicitly mentioned. We’ve now got a pair of darker cyan and magenta inks added to the mix as well.

And the image shows a number of printers all working single sheet hand presses that squeeze the paper against the stone in order to produce the print. This is a pretty labor-intensive process where the wetting, inking and paper pressing is all done by hand.

Card 5, “Final printing.” When the proofs are sufficiently close to the original artwork, the rotary pressman can follow them. The original artwork is transferred multiple times to a new, larger stone which undergoes the same polishing, drawing, and acid wash as before only this time it’s wetted, inked, and printed via automated cylinders.

I wish this described how the images are transferred from the small stones to be printed multiple times on the large ones. It’s very interesting however to see a depiction of the automatic press. I’ve only seen lithography done as art prints now so hand-presses are the only surviving production method.

The automatic press shows why offset printing is a commercially more viable process. Instead of a stone which has to be inked by rollers moving across the entire surface, modern offset lithography uses metal plates that have the same oil/water surface but can also be wrapped around a cylinder. The water can get applied via rollers. Same with the ink. A rubber blanket cylinder transfers* the ink from the plate to the paper (also on a cylinder) and, since it’s softer than stone allows for a more-even print while also protecting the stone image from being degraded by paper.

*Hence the term “offset” being used since there’s no longer a direct contact between the plate and the paper.

The printing industry just needed photography to catch up to its needs. We used photography to convert images to halftone screens. We used it to expose plates. And we used to create multiples of a single piece of artwork.

Also I can’t help but point out that a woman makes her first appearance on the cards as the press operator.

Meanwhile Mr Liebig now features dark brown and dark cyan inks and is looking nearly human in his 10 inks plus gold frame.

Card 6, “Cutting and packing.” The sheets are cut mechanically. They’re then counted and packaged for shipping. The rest of the text describes the progressive proofs in twelve colors plus gold and calls out the new colors that result in the completed image.

The bindery is a basic hand bindery with a mechanical paper cutter and lots of desk space for people to count and sort and package everything. This is still a pretty common thing. While super-advanced automated systems do exist, for small jobs doing it all by hand is the way to go. Cutters are safer and counting is usually done by weighing the finished product but otherwise yeah, lots of hand work at this point.

Also, while the progressives specific 12 colors plus gold, the last two inks added on the list are dark magenta and medium grey. Black never gets mentioned despite being clearly in the image not only as his name plate but also the final detail work in Mr. Liebig’s irises.

This isn’t an oversight but instead reflects how Black doesn’t show up much in the images. Black objects usually get there because of mixing the other inks. You only need to generate the black component to save ink or prevent too much getting put on the paper. Black typically only shows up on it’s own Key* plate and is used for text and border colors and so.

*Why it’s assigned K in the CMYK model.

So yeah. Where modern printing would print this in five inks (CMYK plus metallic gold) in 1906 this used fourteen. Lots more work. Lots more effort. All for something that was being given away. Still, super duper cool and I love having these in my collection both as a explanation of how chromolithography works and as a demonstration of what they actually look like. Thanks Jason!

4 responses to “Yo dawg I heard you like printing

  1. Didn’t have time to actually read this post (yet), but I felt I had to comment on how awesome looking these cards are. Very cool.

  2. Great write-up! Your explanations really bring life to the images. For us baseball guys, do you have a sense of which notable baseball cards sets might have been produced in this manner? T206?

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