There was a time when the letterpress business of Kolkata was the largest printing process of the country. Letterpress printing was the most basic form of printing with a block being pressed against a sheet to get an impression of it.
This form of printing remained the primary way to print and distribute information until the twentieth century. Many printing press owners call it more of a hidden business with the scale of operations often not paid much attention to.
The Historic charm
In 1800, William Carey established a Mission Press in Serampore for the initial purpose of publishing scripture translations. In 1818, the Baptist Mission Press opened in Calcutta. After fifteen years of dual operation, the two presses joined together in a common purpose in 1837.
Between the work of the Serampore Press and the Baptist Mission Press in Calcutta, the complete Bible was printed in Bengali, Oriya, Hindi, Marathi, Sanskrit, and Chinese.
The Big Deal
Newspapers in Indian languages first appeared from the Serampore Mission Press in 1818.
Also in 1818, Carey and his colleagues began publication of the Friend of India, an English newspaper that continued until 1875.
Eventually, Friend of India was incorporated in 1897 into Statesman and Friend of India, a contemporary daily newspaper in India
There were many hidden letterpresses in Bengal which were used during Independence by various freedom fighters
The Upper Lower Case
In the letterpresses, the blocks of the capital alphabets were kept in the containers (or cases) on the upper part of the cabinet and the blocks of lower case alphabets used to be kept in the lower part of the cabinet. That is how the terms ‘upper case’ and ‘lower case’ came into existence
There was a time when West Bengal alone used to consume around 90 – 100 tonnes of paper for bread wrappers alone. To put it in context, 1 kg of paper gave 300 pound bread covers.
The ‘Roti Thonga’ (paper or plastic bag for the bread) would be block printed, resulting in a huge demand for printed labels.
Bidi manufacturers also had a huge demand for these printed labels
Earlier, the blocks used to be made of wood then they began to be prepared from lead
The plates used to be wooden for making designs, which later converted to zinc, they were more accurate after electrolysis began to be used for itching.
The death knell for this booming trade came in the form of offset printing which uses Metal sheets and is way more cost efficient. When offset printing developed, it largely supplanted its role in printing books and newspapers.
In Kolkata and its surroundings, there are few letterpresses still surviving and trying to compete with faster printing technologies.
Today, there are around 10 – 15 letterpresses remaining in Baithakkhana, the country’s largest paper market.
The workers have no other choice left and they somehow make ends meet from this dying business. These days, most of the presses are printing poly packs, sweet boxes, cake boxes, bus tickets etc.
One can only feel sorry for this brilliant form of printing, which not only gave shape to the country’s media but also was the source of livelihood for countless families.
If you are fond of Bengal History and want to know more, you can find it here