The steamship became one of the most exciting inventions, a fruit of the epoch of the Industrial Revolution. Analogously, from the same epoch came a revolution in the technology of printing and, in particular, that of the long runs. An intuitive result, considering the growing importance of paper material for the promotion on dry land of the services of the shipping companies (timetables, deck plans, posters, brochures and leaflets...) and for use on board (menus, daily programmes, passenger lists...), was the link between shipping companies and printing technology which would both develop during the following decades.
From the time of Johann Gutenberg (1394-1468) to the end of the Eighteenth century, there was not much alternative to the wooden printing press which remained hardly changed from its origins; in Paris in 1798, the first “continuous machine” was built, which produced long rolls of paper. In 1814, the first steam-driven press started production at the printing works of “The Times” in London, able to produce 1,100 copies of the newspaper per hour. At about the same time, the first steam-driven ocean ships emerged and steam power revolutionised navigation just as it was revolutionising printing. Already by 1828, further improvement enabled the introduction of presses which could produce 5,000 copies per hour. We are, of course, talking of monochromatic printing; it was in the middle of the Nineteenth century that Auguste H. Marinoni (1823-1904) conceived the idea of the modern press in four colours which, using combinations of blue (ciano), red (magenta), yellow and black, was able to produce several other colours. It was this same inventor, of Italian origin, who in 1866 invented rotary printing.
The sophisticated and highly developed appearance of much of the shipping world's printed material necessitated manual labour, even in the years leading up to the Second World War. During this period, we still find material which was printed using the old technology of xilography (where incisions are made in the surface of a wooden matrix, perpendicular to the grain), lithography (1806,
where the matrix is made of limestone or similar and is inked by a rubber roll) and calcography (similar to lithography but where the matrix is a copper or zinc plate incised with a steel tip). Thanks to the overlaying of further plates - two, three or even more – the “cromotypes” were obtained both with the traditional manual presses or with automatic ones, to print, for instance, larger posters (with coarse net) or postcards. Until the second half of the Nineteenth century, it was only possible to produce postcards on flat presses owing to the thickness of the card.
The choice of different printing techniques, besides depending on the contemporary technology which was available, was also influenced by the nature of the final product. Posters, for instance, were printed with lithographic or calcographic systems in one or more colours; the coarse net meant that the registry of the colours were somewhat approximate. It should be remembered that these large and relatively crude items were intended to be seen from a far distance and would generally have only a brief life: a few days or, at maximum, a few weeks before the bill-posters replaced them.
For this reason, many posters were printed in two sections of 60 to 70 cm by 80 to 95; the upper part, the artistic one, would usually feature an attractive colour portrait of the steamer with the various logos and flags of the shipowning company and, at the cusp of the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries, they were printed in three or four colours. The lower section, on the other hand, contained details of the intended sailings and therefore was regularly replaced. For this reason, the latter was printed on presses set with movable fonts in one or two colours.
Lithography was habitually used for the brochures and other art printing which required full colour with well-defined edges; in some cases, the best publications would involve the use of several printing techniques and could be considered outstanding samples of graphic art. For instance, high quality lithographs or calcographs would be glued to hand-made art paper pages on which perhaps a decorative frieze or frame had been dry-pressed to emphasise the central image. In the post-War period, the four-colour rotary press evolved to such an extent that in a matter of a few years a large number of the art printers previously instrumental in publicising shipping to the general public quickly disappeared.