Scientific American 13, 22.9.1866
Popular appregension usually confines the application of the "art preservative" to the multiplication of books, newspapers, or other periodicals, and the permanence of ideas which, spoken only, would be evanescent and die with their originator or his cotemporaries. But, although the preservation of ideas belongs mainly to that adaption of printing which gives to writing its lease of life, by indefinite multiplication of copies, an idea may be as surely protected, it it appeals to the fancy and innate love of beauty, as though it confined its appeal to the intellect exclusively.
Printing is truly the "art of arts." It reproduces indefinitely the theories, ideas, and practical facts of thinkers and workers, and it as well subserves the purpose of him whose object is to appeal to the fancies and tastes of all classes. The production of figures oncloths is as really printing as the preservation of ideas by means of the letter type. The decoration of plain cloths with figures is one of the olders of arts. It was practiced by the ancients, and the Chinese and Aztecs were in possession of the art when they became first known to Europeans. To this day the Chinese use the same method in printing cloths that the ydo in printing books. In the latter case we have improved upon their process in using movable types. instead of engraving on and printing from the blocks - we using in our stereptype process the movable types to produce the block, whereas they engrave the block itself. In the former case it is but a few years since machine printing took the place of hand block prining in figuring calicoes.
This method of producing colored figures on cloths by means of prinitng, should not be confounded with dyeing, although by a previous protection of those portions of the fabric not intended to be colored, dyeing has been employed to make figured cloths. Printing deposits the colors directly upon the cloth, which are secured there by mordants. This art, brought from the East, found its way into England about the year 1676. We will briefly describe the process formerly used.
"Block printing" of calicoes was comparatively a simple process. The web of white cloth was sent to the printing shop, either in a bleached state, or dyed some color which formed the ground. Previous to being submitted to the manipulations of the printer it was "calendered," or pressed between heavy rollers, which gave it a perfect surface. It was then ready for the printer. He worked at a table, wide enough to accommodate the fabric, and six or seven feet long. The roll of plain cloth lay at one end of the table on a platform, and was drawn up over the table, which was of stone and covered with a thick felt blanket. Behind him was a tub, some thirty or thirty-six inches diameter, partially filled with a mixture of common pitch and a vehicle which held it in solution. Floating on the surface of this yielding mass was a piece of woolen cloth stretched tightly over a hoop. A pot of the requisite color stood at the side, and the attendant, or "tearer," as eh was called, with a flat brush smeared the hooped woolen sieve with the color. The printer was furnished with a "block," corresponding in length and width with the pattern to be printed, the face of which was cut in relief, as are the blocks used now in prining wood cuts. By dipping lightly the block in the sieve, floating on the yielding surface, it took up enough of the color to make an impression on the cloth. The cloth being drawn tightly over the table presented a smooth surface, upon which, by repeated applications of the block, its pattern was produced and reproduced indefinitely, the "tearer" smearing the sieve with fresh color in each interval. The printer was guided in placing his block by a minute pin inserted at a corner of his block. The cloth on the surface of the table being printed, it was wound up over rollers traversing the room on racks, so that when it came back byt the series of rollers to the end of the table, it was wound perfectly dry upon a shaft, from which it was taken to be "lived" or "raised".
This is, in brief, the modus operandi of block printing in its simplest form. It will be seen that several applications of the block were required to cover one single transverse section of the fabric, and many repeated applications to print a full web of thirty or forty yards in length. Sometimes the ground itself was applied by blocks. In such a case the figure was first printed with the block cut in relief, and then the fabric was reprinted with a block cut in intaglio, the figure being sunk into its surface, and the surface itself being faced with woolen or felt, to convey a large portion of the coloring matter. Another style was that of printing several colors or shades at once by means of an apparatus which fed different colors at the same time. Technically this was termed a "hokey-pokey" tub. The deposition of the colors, held in reservoirs, was effected by the pressure of the block, in dipping, acting upon compressed air.
This block printing is still employed in the prining of silk handkerchiefs, each one of which is a single pattern, and largely in the prining of floor and table oil cloths. In the latter case the coloring matter is not a dye, but a paint, and is deposited mainly on the surface of the fabric.
Machine printing by means of engraved copper rollers, has now taken the place of block prinitng, and that we shall make a subject for another article. When machine printing was first practiced in England and France, he colors used were not deemed "fast," and much prejudice was excited against the product of the new process. Hand-printed calicoes were eagerly sought after, and as the process of hand printing could not be so accurate as that done my machinery, those who studied economy rather than show, sought eagerly, in their selection of calicoes, for evidences of faults to make sure that they were getting the genuine article. The shrewd suppliers of our markets abroad soon ascertained the fact, and sent to this country imperfectly-printed goods, printed by machinery, to suit the queerly-fastidious tastes of the purchasers in the American market. Labor-saving machinery, however, ultimately triumphed over old and slow processes, and the days of block printing were numbered.