I’d like to say that my interest in collecting print blocks had something to do with my father. He was an embosser, that’s the raised lettering or design on leather or paper that is similar to printing in its process. Dad also had a small printing press in the basement and did side jobs printing wedding invitations and baby announcements. Plus business cads and letter heads.
Beside drawers full of type with names like Park Avenue and Old English, he had print blocks purchased in sets that had standard themes, flags and symbols, holidays, religious, and animals. I remember some customers wanting special logos on letter heads or business cards and he would have them made by an engraver friend of his. I have no idea what happened to those sets and print blocks. And my personal interest in collecting them really stems from the advertising and graphic art.
Collecting of printing blocks was made easier in the Milwaukee area, with the proliferation of printing companies, and the German influence of paper making and printing. Engravers also settled in the area and when WW-I cut off imported printed products from Germany, it was a boom to the local printing industry.
I have hundreds of print blocks in my collection. Ones with big name advertisers never last long before they are sold. The copper top print blocks have good appeal from their easy to read nature, and the inherent warmth of copper. Some of the blocks are from newsletters and they are often comical or political in nature and sometimes both. The most intricate work is on the advertising block for the Schade Printing Service, with its great village street scene, with the company logo place on an oval sign above a doorway.
Another of my favorites is this clock face with all manner of electric appliances around the dial face and advertising what electricity can do for you around the home. Ironically, it is from the Wisconsin Electric Power Company, a monopoly, which need not advertise at all.
This one is absolutely beautiful if not impossible to read, especially backwards, but that’s how the print block looks so that the correct image winds up on the paper. In case you have trouble seeing this one in all its fancy script lettering, it reads “Received Of”.
My largest block is actually made of stone and was used to lithograph beer bottle labels. Guess dad never explained the lithograph process because the images on the stone are correct and I have no idea how the image is then transferred to paper. These blocks are around three inches thick and weigh a ton, but are highly collectible for their advertising. Its my good fortune to find two stones with beer advertising which greatly increases their appeal to several groups of collectors. That seems to be true with other print blocks as well. If you are a cat figure collector, putting a small print block of a cat on your display shelf is an easy choice.
Most of my blocks were purchased at antique stores or flea markets, and most are inexpensive. I encourage you to do a little exploring at your favorite market, whether it’s a brick and mortar location, online or in a field of tables and tents.