19th-Century Printing Technology Saw a Boom in Ephemera

courtesy Richard Sheaff Ephemera Collection, Letterform Archive

Top left: A lawn mower advertisement in the “Gaslight” style, which used layered images and typography to create a sense of depth. Middle: A luggage label for Taiseikan Dogashima Hot Spring Hotel in Hakone, Japan. Right: A shoe maker advertisement made with the split-fountain inking technique.

courtesy Richard Sheaff Ephemera Collection, Letterform Archive

A luggage label for a tour of Setonaikai National Park from Tsujiume Inn in Takamatsu, Shikoku Island, Japan.

From the mid-fifteenth to the nineteenth century, the letterpress dominated printing, allowing for little design variation. New techniques developed in the 1800s, such as chromolithography with multi-colored prints, rotary printing presses, and hand-drawn lithographed typography, led to a burgeoning time of printed ephemera, especially in advertising.

Richard Sheaff, a graphic and publication designer, has amassed one of the leading collections of this material. “My interests as a designer and as a collector were always largely one and the same: an intense interest in typography and in printing technologies,” he said.

For the over 500 US Postal Service stamps he has art directed or designed, Sheaff has regularly been inspired by his collection. “Because I had drifted into design from an interest in offset and letterpress printing, I often pushed printers to do new things which I believed they could achieve using then-current technology,” he said.

Thanks in part to a donation from Sheaff, over 26,000 of his ephemera items were recently acquired by Letterform Archive in San Francisco. Established by letter arts collector Rob Saunders, the nonprofit opened in 2015; its hands-on collection concentrates on the history of written communication.

courtesy Richard Sheaff Ephemera Collection, Letterform Archive

A soap advertisement featuring rebus puzzle text.

“Our existing collection is strong in manuscripts, type specimens, periodicals, posters, reference books, and the original artwork of graphic designers, calligraphers, and lettering artists,” said Editorial Director and Associate Curator Stephen Coles. “While we have a few special examples of stamps, labels, and packaging, ephemera has never been a core focus. Sheaff’s keen eye for design, combined with a lifetime of collecting, has built a large, highly curated trove of typographically rich material.”

The items include shoe and laundry wax ads with vivid gradients of ink using the 1870s split-fountain technique that would return to prominence on 1960s psychedelic posters. Trade cards in the 1880s-90s “Gaslight” style feature layered typography and images, while other promotional materials were trimmed with a metal die into shapes of shirts, hats, and pianos. The collection also shows the process behind these works at a time when graphic design became a profession and advertising its own field, including original art like maquettes and calligraphy samples.

Letterform Archive is digitizing thousands of these items for its online archive, supporting its mission to make letterform history accessible to all.

“Ever since Rob Saunders opened his living room for guests to come and leaf through his books and handle rare works of design, Letterform Archive was founded on the concept of radical access,” Coles said. Now, whether a flowery Art Nouveau perfume label from Paris or a radiant Japanese luggage tag, there are even more striking pieces to explore.