METROPOSTCARD.COM GUIDE TO PRINTING TECHNIQUES 5
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Postcard Novelties


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EMBOSSING TECHNIQUES


Embossing
Most embossed postcards were created by the process of pressing molded die forms into a flat sheet of paper to create a design in relief. Two die forms were usually employed in embossing; a bas-relief die (male) which is placed on the press bed to push the design upwards, while the mold-like die (female) applies pressure to the paper from above. The female die is sometimes heated to help recast the paper around the male die. Since it is more difficult to align paper over an irregular die, pins were often used for precise registration, but they left small holes behind in the image. Printing always preceded embossing as a flat surface was needed for the proper transfer of ink from plate to paper, and the pressure from printing would most likely flatten any embossing. Paper can also be embossed for affect without the need for ink and registration. Embossing was used on novelty postcards and was also a common ingredient on illustrated greeting cards as well. While rare, there are some photo-based view-cards that were also embossed. When embossing created a very uneven surface that made it difficult to write on, another sheet of preprinted paper was sometimes glued to their backs. The eventual introduction of the French fold on greeting cards was another solution to this problem.

Postcard

Embossing: The whites on this card have been embossed in careful registration to only raise the paper’s surface between the printed ink so that the illusion of lace lying atop the card is created. Depending on the type of illustration, an embossed texture is not always immediately visible in a postcard’s composition. It is however nearly always obvious from its back especially when the edges pick up dirt as they tend to do.

Postcard Back

Rubbings
One of the simplest ways to reproduce an image in relief is through rubbing. This is achieved by placing a sheet of paper over the relief and then the paper over the area to be copied is rubbed with graphite, crayon, or chalk. Since the substate contains a mixture of surface heights, the rubbing will appear darkest where the most pressure can be applied leaving sunken areas of the relief to remain white or at least much lighter than the rest of the image. Since this method often increases contrast, this process can bring out details that are difficult for the eye to perceive. While multiples can be produced this way, rubbings are usually made as one of a kind pieces. Even if copies are desired, variances in hand pressure insures that each rubbing is a little different.

Reproducing cards, first copyrighted as a novelty by A. Loeffler in 1895 combined the art of rubbing with a reliefed paper surface created through embossing. These cards held a simple printed linear drawing, and then a similar linear pattern would be embossed into them so that the entire image was raised. A postcard printed back would then be glued onto its highly uneven back so it could be written upon. The front of these cards contained printed instructions that were not embossed, advising that if a piece of paper was held firmly over it and rubbed with a soft pencil or crayon, the printed image would be reproduced. In this manner the image could be reproduced more times than anyone would ever have patience to do. The soft paper embossing on these cards wore out quickly when used as directed.

Postcard

Reproducing Card: This early embossed postcard was purposely designed so that a rubbing could be taken off of it. While the simple linear drawing suggests what to expect, the embossing beneath it is not nearly as fine, and will only produce an image that is vaguely similar.


Blind Embossing
Blank areas on printed cards were sometimes embossed to add imagery or decorative elements. The idea is that a high relief will catch light and produce shadows to reveal texture that can be read without the aid of printing. While this type of embossing could be made with dies, they were also made with reliefed plates of wood or metal that could carry finer details. Japanese printers sometimes added an un-inked cut block to their color woodcuts for the sole purpose of adding texture to the final print (gauffrage). Blind embossing became a popular technique in the 1890’s but its use on postcards largely ended before the First World War.

Postcard

Blind Embossing: On the postcard above from 1893 the unprinted shapes of the insects were left as white silhouettes surrounded by dark ink. They were embossed afterwards from the back to provide them with detail and emphasize their presence. The entire printed surface of the card below is reserved for a solid neutral tint. Its sole purpose is to bring out the white areas of the card that carry the image through embossing. While the letters are embossed, it is in the details of the castle that this technique is used to its best advantage. Note that the scan does not capture the fine details of the embossing nor its high relief that allow it to be read from a distance.

Postcard


Postcard

Blind Embossing: Paper was not the only material that could be embossed. Pictured above is a postcard where the entire image is created through blind embossing heavy copper foil. A paper postcard back is adhered to it so it can be written upon, but it is doubtful that these sort of fragile novelties were mailed, at least without a cover.


Previous to their application on postcards, blind embossing had long been used to place official seals on documents. The use of printed seals dates back at least 3,000 years to China, but the modern embossed seal has more in common with the art of rubber stamping that developed in the mid-19th century. While a seal could be carved, it was usually cast in metal from a mold that had been taken from a relief. The original reliefed form could have been hand carved or photomechanical etched into metal. Seals were traditionally used by pressing them into soft substances like wax but they were later adapted to hand held embossing machines that could create enough pressure to clearly emboss the image into a sheet of paper. This had important implications to postcards, not in their design but in their labeling. Many photographers used embossing machines or similar hand held devices to place their names (blind signature) onto real photo postcards because printing on items made in limited numbers was highly impractical. Real photo postcards were usually placed on photo paper with pre-printed postcard backs so there was no need for printing at all. Sometimes a business name or title was added to a printed card through blind embossing but this is far more rare.

Embossing and Airbrush
The higher a relief was embossed into a postcard the more visible it became, but when applied to a printed card the overextension of the paper’s surface often caused the ink to crack in proportions that were visible to the eye. If left completely white these cards often didn’t have the punch needed to draw the attention of customers to them. The addition of hand coloring would have been the traditional answer but the moisture in colorants like watercolor could damage the raised surface by softening it. The solution was found in the application of atomized ink though the use of a small and precise air sprayer employing high pressure. Airbrush had been primarily used for retouching photographs and illustrative work, sometimes with the use of stencils but its low moisture content proved to be the perfect tool for this job. Abner Peeler patented the first airbrush in 1879, but Charles Burdick’s patent of 1893 refined the design into a model more recognizable today. Ink applied this way has soft edges and can create extremely subtle blends, but it cannot produce fine detail. On these postcards the embossing provided the detail and the airbrushed colorants were used as a design element to create a highly mannered and bold look.

Postcard

Airbrushed Embossing: The airbrushed color on this postcard was not used to create a more representational image but rather to bring out the design in relief. This type of color application by hand prevented any two postcards from looking exactly alike.


Blocking
While most embossing techniques were designed to produce a raised relief the blocking method created a depression in the cardís surface. It is made with male and female dies just as in normal embossing only here the order is reversed. Blocking was almost always used in conjunction with foil stamping. Typically a sheet of gold leaf is placed between the paper and the male die, which pushed it into the embossed recesses where it receives heat from the opposite female die. The combination of heat and pressure adhere the gold to the paper and the remaining foil is dusted off for reuse. This embossing process became very popular in conjunction with bookbinding after a blocking machine was invented in 1832. It tended to be used in a linear fashion on postcards and can be found most often on greetings.

Postcard

Blocking with Foil Stamping: Gold has been add this lithographic postcard for decorative emphasis through blocking. It use has been optimized by the contrasting black background. Many Holiday cards used blocking to create the effect of snow.


False Plate Marks
A false intaglio is any type of image surrounded with a plate mark that was not actually made by the plate that printed the image. After the ink on a printed image has dried it is placed over a slightly larger and thicker blank plate and run through a press again. This process creates an embossed plate mark like that of an etching or engraving without disturbing the original picture. There is usually some white space left between the plate mark and the image, which is unlikely to be found on a true intaglio print where the embossing tends to meet the edge of the ink. The edges of an intaglio plate that leave this embossed mark are normally wiped clean, but any sort of scratch or abrasion can pick up ink and print. Real plate marks usually have some ink residue on them while false plate marks are always completely clean. False plate marks were used as a marketing ploy and not an attempt to create a forgery. By insinuating a connection between the massed produced postcard and a more exclusive work of fine art, value could be potentially added in the customers eye.

Postcard

False Plate Mark: A false plate mark has been printed around the image of this halftone postcard from 1908 even though it has no resemblance to one made in intaglio. False plate marks were primarily used as a marketing ploy to create associations with fine art.


Even though gravure is an intaglio process printed off a metal plate, most postcards printed by it were produced on large sheets of paper, which were later cut down to size leaving no plate mark behind. False plate marks were sometimes added back onto these cards to remind the customer that they were looking at a true intaglio prints. Photogravure was also used to create false etchings. Since they are both intaglio techniques one can easily pass for the other without close inspection, and the addition of a false plate mark adds much to this deception. Small gravure plates were also printed by hand, which would leave a real plate mark behind. Hand printing however is a slow process, so real plate marks are usually only found on small editions printed by artists and not by large commercial printers.


Oleographs
Even though many artists used the lithographic process during the 19th century to produce original works of art, much of commercial chromolithography was employed in producing art reproductions. Prints designed to imitate the look of oil paintings were marketed toward the growing middle class that was beginning to have excess money to spend, but not enough of it to buy high priced originals. To enhance this look some printers began to emboss these prints with a texture that simulated the strokes of a paintbrush. These strokes could follow the general patterns in the composition or be completely arbitrary. A heavy coating of varnish or shellac was then added to further their painterly appearance. By the early 20th century publishers had taken up this technique and applied it to postcard production with varying success. This gimmick was largely used as a marketing novelty for these images were not really mistakable for actual paintings. Today these heavy layers of varnish have often cracked or yellowed obscuring the printed image even more. This same process is now often used to emboss canvas or paper board in the production of factory paintings.

Postcard

Oleograph: This postcard printed in a red, yellow, and blue halftones was embossed with line work then heavily varnished. When looking at the card it appears that the imitation brush strokes were drawn into the varnish but the embossing can be felt through the back.


Die Cutting
The mechanical cutting of printed material into various shapes had been in practice during the later half of the 19th century to create large amounts of scrap, novelties, and advertising cards before being adapted for use on postcards. This is achieved by a method of using metal blades formed into a shape (Die) to cut designs into products that straight cutting tools could not accomplish. Most dies have a male and female part. The male part cuts the design while the female part provides support for the substrate so it will not tear under pressure. This process was traditionally performed on a flatbed press after the product was printed. It was later adapted to the more popular rotary press because of its speed, but they cannot cut as precisely. Die cut postcards were never printed in as great a number as were the advertising cards of the 1890’s that were given out by hand. This probably had less to do with changing taste than the obstacles faced by irregular shaped objects in the mail. The proclivity of these cutouts to bend and tear meant that they needed to be placed in an envelope if mailed; which was an added expense that discouraged their use.

Advertising Card

Advertising Card: This early lithographic advertising card has been die cut into the shape of a fan to gain greater attention. It has also received spot printing in gold, which was a fairly common practice on these cards.


Die cutting was also used to create punch out cards. These cards were not irregular shaped, shapes were only partially cut within them so that they could be punched out with hand pressure after purchase. Most of these cards seem to have been made to create small paper toys. While some of these punched out objects like dolls or animals were meant to stand alone, others had pieces that could be assembled into a more elaborate toy. Similar cards were also produced where the printed toys needed to be cut out.

Postcard

Punch Out Card: This card captures a typical page from a illustrated scientific journal, but the five insects pictured van all be punched out as toys. On the back of the card shown below, we can better see the perforated edges of the parcel die cut, along with instructions for use.

Postcard Back

The first picture puzzle seems to date back to 1760 when the English cartographer John Spilsbury cut up a map mounted on wood into individual countries to better teach geography. These early novelties on wood where often made with the same tools used in marquetry work, but this slow handiwork would be industrialized when pictures pasted to cardboard were die cut on press beds. Cardboard postcards die cut into interlocking pieces would eventually be made as novelties. A variation is a postcard puzzle in which the pieces are not cut through but perforated in straight lines by a die and punch machine. These devices were first introduced in the 1840’s and are best known for their work in separating stamps. Whether die cutting or perforating, the same cut could be used on multiple cards because the pattern did not follow the printed image.

Puzzle Postcard

Picture Puzzle Postcard: The puzzle on this postcard is not cut through but only perforated. After a message was written on its back, the card was then folded along the perforated lines until all the pieces were separated. Each piece would then be mailed separately similar to an installment postcard set. Once reassembled the message could be read. This card was sold in an envelope with printed instructions on it.


Novelty Postcard

Die Cut Postcard: This real photo novelty contains some hand coloring and a large ribbon appliqué. Much of the intense coloring comes from metallic ribbons foil sandwiched between the front and back of the card. This hidden layer has been exposed through die cutting shapes out from the front of the card. While this technique was used to manufacture hold to light cards, this card is completely opaque.



TECHNIQUES FOR NOVELTIES


Flexography
While it has always been desirable to place printed designs on a variety of different materials, this list had long been restricted by the difficulty of perfectly matching a rigid or rough surface with that of a hard printing substrate. The Englishman, Robert Barclay who came from a long line of press makers patented one of the earliest solutions to this problem in 1876. He altered a cylinder press so that the image from a litho-stone was first offset onto a sheet of cardboard that was wrapped around an impression cylinder before it was printed onto another hard surface, in this case a sheet of tin.

By 1890 Bibby, Baron & Sons patented a new type of press where a flexible transfer plate made of cheap molded rubber is adhered to a printing cylinder and inked with a finely textured roller, and then it is directly rolled onto the intended product to create a printed image. Its basic principles are the same as found in letterpress printing, but this process is more versatile. It is used to print on almost any surface, porous and non-porous alike, such as, leather, plastic, metal, paper, cardboard, plastic, and wood. It was used to create novelty postcards where unusual material could not be run through a more conventional press. Its look can vary between fine and sloppy, and its limitations prevent it from printing finely detailed work. The early water based inks, which had a tendency to smear almost doomed this technology but the introduction of oil based aniline inks breathed new life into the process. A new crisis arose in the 1940’s when aniline was found to be toxic but better inks were substituted for it in 1949. This process went by many names such as gummidruck, lustro, and transglo printing, but by 1951 the name flexography finally took hold.

Postcard

Flexography: The postcard above used flexography to print on a wooden veneer that was too delicate to pass through a rotary press without cracking. It has stretched the limit on how fine an image can be created with this process. The example below is a postcard made of thick leather that displays the more typical quality of printing that this process provided.

Postcard

Pyrography (Writing with Fire)
The art of burning designs or pictures into wood or leather is an ancient form of art. Pyrography, more commonly referred to as woodburning or pokerwork was widely used to produce novelty postcards, especially where the material used was so thick it was impossible to print on. Many of these unique cards were produced on thin sheets of veneer that were then backed with preprinted paper with a postcard back. This not only made them easier to write on, the paper also covered up spots where the wood might have been accidentally burnt through. Sometimes this process was used in conjunction with flexography.

Postcard

Pyrograph: The drawing on this postcard was entirely burnt into a thin wood veneer. Most cards produced in this manner lack this sort of artistry.


Hold to Light Cards
Hold-to-light postcards use a hidden layer to alter the appearance of the printed image on its front when held up to a bright source of light. The most desired effect was to transform a daylight scene into a night view. These cards come in three basic types. A translucent type was published under the Meteor trademark where a opaque die cut tissue is sandwiched between the printed image on the front of the card and its plain paper back. The front and back of the cards are glued together around their edges hiding the inner layer. Any printing on the back is usually in a pale ink so not to become part of the effect. When held up to light it only shines through the cutout shapes in the tissue forming items like the moon, illuminated windows, reflections and street lights.

A second method places translucent colored paper, usually red and yellow, between the two layers but in this case the printed front has the shapes to be illuminated die cut out of it. Even though the entire image can be viewed under normal light, the cut away areas make the layer underneath more translucent when held to light, producing brighter stronger colors. These types of cards seem to appear more often in the United States.

Hold to Light Postcard

Hold to Light: Parts of this black & white collotype have been cut out to reveal red and yellow printed in the layer underneath. When held to light these thiner color areas will brighten while the thicker areas of the card will appear darker by contrast thus simulating a night scene. This transformation was not supposed to be realistic, only fun.


A third method of making hold-to-light cards uses two printed layers. The top layer holds what appears to be a normal image, and the hidden layer underneath either contains additional imagery that can enhance or change the meaning of the narrative when held up to light. Sometimes this same technique was used to change black & white cards into color images. Unless held up to light many of these hold-to-light card cards are not discernible from ordinary postcards. Many of these cards are unfortunately printed on paper too thick for the backlighting to be effective. These novelties became popular in the 1890’s.

Hold to Light Postcard

Hold to Light: The front of the card above is printed in monochrome, but its hidden layer seen below has fields of pale blue and red. The darkest areas are also printed in black to give them more emphisis. When the card is held up to light, the two layers combine to form the color image further below. Note that the middle layer shown here is skewed because it was photographed under extreme bright light. While this reveals the hidden printing more clearly, it is impossible to separate it from the layer above. The completed image will also vary in appearance depending on the type and intensity of the light shining through it.

Hold to Light Postcard

Hold to light Postcard

Invisible Ink
A number of 19th century novelties and turn of the century postcards employed invisible ink in their production. These were exclusively comic cards where a hidden visual acted as the punch line. There are a variety of invisible ink types but those that were used on postcards were designed to be developed out by heat so they could be easily processed without damaging the card. Most have printed instructions to heat the card with a hot flat iron along with additional warnings to not set it on fire. It is not possible without chemical analysis to determine the exact type of heat fixed ink used, but the most likely candidates are water based solutions containing citrus, apple, onion juice, or vinegar. Once these organic solutions dry on paper they cannot seen but they will quickly oxidize and turn brown when exposed to high heat.

Postcard

Invisible Ink: This comic newspaper postcard from 1906 was printed in lithographic colors and invisible ink. It has already been heated to reveal the hidden visual punch line of the riddle.


Some novelty cards were designed to reveal hidden messages rather than pictures. Perhaps the most common method used was to print the invisible message directly on the card with some sort of clear varnish. This substance had the property of holding graphite from a pencil or metallic fragments from a coin if rubbed over it thus revealing the message. The clarity of the message was always dependent on how carefully the card was rubbed and with what material. Any fault in the printing was difficult to discern beforehand because it was invisible.

Postcard

Rub On Card: This novelty was promoted as a Metropolitan Wireless Message Post Card. A coin has already been rubbed over its surface to reveal an insurance advertisement. While the message can be read, its clarity is less than ideal. Novelties provided more incentive for the receiver to read junk mail that might otherwise be quickly discarded.


Screen Printing
Samuel Simon received an English patent for stencil printing in 1907, but the process seems not to have been used until it came to America in 1916. Screen printing uses a stencil that is attached to porous screen made of silk (silkscreen), which has been tightly stretched and mounted on a wooden frame for support. Tension in the stretched fabric keeps it from touching the surface to be printed until a semi-fluid ink is pushed along the back of the stretched screen with a blade forcing it through to the other side and onto the flush printing surface. The stencil applied to the front of the screen causes the ink to print only where the stencil has been cut out, and the screen texture causes the ink to spread in a flat consistent manner producing even solid flat tones. Additional colors can be applied to the same print with a new stencil once it has dried, but the thick skin of ink that lays on the paper’s surface dries very slowly. A stencil’s ability to render details is limited as all components have to be large enough to attach to the mesh of the screen, while the mesh has to be open enough to prevent residual ink from clogging the screen it as it dries. Stencils can be made from almost any flat material ranging from hand cut paper, manufactured films, to photo sensitive emulsions. Painting glue or shellac directly onto the screen can also create stencils. The secret to this method lies in the diverse solvent base for all materials used, which must compliment each other. If the ink used is petroleum based, then the stencil must be water or lacquer based to avoid deterioration. If the ink is water based, then the stencil most only dissolve with lacquer or petroleum distillates.

Screen printing did not become a commercially viable process until a suitable rubber blade (squeegee) was developed for it in 1936. Even so with war looming the cost of silk began running high. It took the development of polyester, a cheap and durable substitute during the 1940’s for the technique to gain wider use. At this same time artists began using the screen printing process in increasing numbers because the method did not require access to an expensive press to produce prints. This new medium met with much resistance within artistic circles due to its close associations with cheap commercial printing. The term Serigraphy, coined in the United States, was applied to it as a way to distinguish its use in fine art printing from its commercial cousin. Pretensions have since been largely put aside and the process is now often referred to as silkscreen. There is no actual difference between the two and today both terms are often used interchangeably. Screen printing was used sparingly in postcard production, and it is largely found among those cards produced by small shops or individual artists.

Postcard

Screen Print: The postcard above has the simple classic type of design most often found on a screen print, but it is also a good example of bad printing. In the detail below we can see that when the screen pulled up too slowly after ink was forced through, a screen pattern was left behind in the excessively thick ink. The process may have also been rushed for it appears that subsequent layers of ink were added over those that were not completely dry. The detail from a different print seen further below demonstrates what a proper flat printing surface of a silkscreen should look like, where the overlap of the ink skins are barely visible.

Postcard Detail


Silkscreen

Silhouette (Shadows)
The cutting out of portraits in profile from a single black sheet of paper dates back to Finance Minister, Etienne de Silhouette who started it as an amusement for the 18th century French court. While anyone with skill could produce a silhouette, the wealthy often employed mechanisms such as a camera obscura to aid the process. The outline of a person’s shadow was usually first traced, and then this drawing could be reduced with a pantograph. Upper-class associations combined with the ease of production eventually allowed them to become more common while retaining status. Eventually silhouettes were exchanged as tokens of friendship, and then as a customary first exchange between lovers. By the time postcards arrived, the cutting of silhouettes had already become a firm tradition, though when printed they often took on new forms. Portraits were still made but a whole variety of new subjects began to be represented in this genre. Silhouettes on postcards were seldom cutout except those on handmade versions. Printing also provided the freedom to step away from the traditional method of cutting out the entire image in one single piece. Designs became much freer if less ingenious. While artists tried to draw them in compliance with the older one piece tradition, they were very often accompanied by floating forms. Most silhouettes were printed through line block or lithography that naturally lent themselves to printing flat solid tones. In seeking novelty to attract customers, some artists abandoned the black & white tradition and began adding color. This was not so unusual because many silhouettes had long been painted. While many fine pieces were produced this way, color often diluted the impact of this style.

Postcard

Silhouette: While this postcard has the look of cut paper, the edges of the silhouette are jagged and are accompanied by ink squash to reveal it was printed from a line block plate.




Postcard

Tinted Silhouettes: A very popular variation of the traditional silhouette was to combine it with a color tint. This was not to make it look more real, only to expand the compositional possibilities. The lithographic card above was printed with a solid black but the grey comes from a tinting plate of halftone dots. While these two colors harmonize, the multiple colors on the card below feels contrary to the spirit of the silhouette despite its limited appearance. Although it is printed with tricolor halftone dots, the black seems to have been added as a solid color to enhance the silhouette with contrast.

Postcard


Postcard

Pictorial Silhouette: As time went on, more liberties were taken with the way silhouettes were presented until they were just elements within a pictorial composition. The mixing of styles may have seemed clever but they usually read as awkward. It works well in this card because of the limited palette, which is appropriate to a night scene. The image was only printed with a blue and light blue halftone. A grey border has been added to make the white paper within the image pop as highlights.






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