This week I learned about historic printing—processes of a hundred years ago or so. Mike Parker, printer, historian, and presenter at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, taught me a thing or two about printers and presses, especially as they apply to one of the most extraordinary Buffalo Bill’s Wild West posters in the Center’s collection.
Before the Center opened its “new” Buffalo Bill Museum in 2012, we acquired a Buffalo Bill’s Wild West poster commemorating an 1887 performance of the show for Queen Victoria of England. I was impressed with the 10 x 28 ft. poster when I first saw it; after hearing about it from a printer, though, I’m even more astounded.
You see, first, an artist had to create this elaborate image; then, an engraver would carve the image into blocks to be placed in the “form” to print particular sections of the poster. (Mike estimates that at least a year was needed to create the image and carve the printing blocks.) The printing press applied ink to the blocks in the form that would transfer the image to paper. Keep in mind that each sheet of paper comprising the poster measured only 20 x 40 in.!
This Wild West poster consists of 32 separate sheets! Since four base blocks were needed for each of the four colors for each sheet, a total of 512 base blocks (4 blocks x 4 colors x 32 sheets) were needed to produce this poster. With additional blocks for special areas, roughly 763 blocks were used!
The carved image had to be upside down and backward in order for it to be the right orientation off the press. In addition, anything white would have to be cut away since the color white was simply the paper showing through. Shaded or tinted areas were created with hash marks that weren’t cut as deep as the other carving, and so didn’t absorb as much ink.
This was one complicated print job—and all for a billboard! Take a look when you visit the Buffalo Bill Museum and try to spot the individual sheets. You can read more from Mike Parker in the upcoming issue of our member magazine Points West. Not a member? Join today!