Skip to main content

Uses of print throughout history

Nowadays, we take print for granted, whether we want to pick up the latest newspaper to read on our daily commute or the bestselling novel to take on holiday with us. But, printing has a long history and varied uses.

These are just some of the many uses of print…

In art

Printing has long been used in the arts. As long as 35,000 years ago, cave artists held their hands against the walls and blew pigment over them to create repeating patterns. In China, some of the earliest printed fragments to survive are of silk printed with flowers from the Han Dynasty. Woodblock printing has also long been used for printing both letters and images. Wood is carved, with areas due to remain white left in relief.

In religion

One of the major reasons for the development of the printing process was to share religious messages. The man usually credited with being the key figure in the printing industry is Johann Gutenberg who invented movable, interchangeable, reusable type for printing on a wooden press. His most famous works are the 180 copies of the bible printed in the 15th century. Each copy had 1282 pages and was completed by colouring the main capitals in hand. Just 48 copies are known to exist now, so if you find one, you know you’ve discovered a historic gem.

In newspapers and magazines

Newspapers first began circulating in the 17th century. With the invention of the printing press, the number of newspapers available greatly increased. At first, hot-metal ‘slugs’ were assembled in columns and pages by hand before the printing press became automated. Developments in printing led to a boom in the newspaper industry, with several different titles appearing in major cities. Today, most newspapers have declining circulation figures as more and more of us choose to get our news online. But, one glance at the supermarket shelves reveals there is a still a place for print, for the publication of daily and Sunday newspapers, along with glossy magazines on a whole host of subjects from fashion to food, cars to caravans.

In business

Print has worked hand-in-hand with businesses through the ages. From advertising services in the first newspapers to printing leaflets for distribution to potential customers, advances in print have often led to increases in profit. Print has also been vital for business networking, with business cards given out at the beginning or end of a meeting. They date back to 17th century Europe where they were used to announce the impending arrival of prosperous or aristocratic people. Now, even with the advent of business social networking sites such as LinkedIn, most professionals still carry business cards giving their name, title, company and relevant contact information.

In 3D

Modern-day advancements mean we no longer have to print only in 2D. 3D printing processes are revolutionising a variety of industries in the 21st century. The most significant is arguably the way in which 3D printing is changing healthcare. The process has saved lives because medics have been able to ‘print’ medical tools in third world countries, to print splints to hold open airways and to make models which are exact replicas of individual patients’ organs so they can gain vital practice before operating on the real thing.

Educating, informing, providing artistic pleasure and even saving lives, printing has played a huge part in the development of civilisation as we know it.