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Of ships and sails and biscuit tins…

In 1963, a landmark exhibition on the history of printing and the book entitled Printing and the mind of man was held in London on the occasion of the eleventh International printing machinery and allied trades exhibition (IPEX). Organised on two different sites, the IPEX trade fair at the Earls Court Exhibition Centre and the British Museum, its aim was to provide an overview of five hundred years of printing, and of its impact on the development of civilization.

Printing and the mind of man was probably the last major example of the nineteenth century tradition of the great international exhibitions which regularly exhibited the finest historical examples of printing alongside the most recent advances in contemporary graphic arts techniques. In the fifty years which have elapsed since, exhibitions devoted to printing and graphic communication have become more specialised, a tendency which is reflected in the many printing museums which have been created during the same period. However, despite the undeniable success of the printing and related museums over the last half century (the AEPM census of printing museums lists 140-odd new museums set up since the early 1970s), many important aspects of industrial printing in the twentieth century remain largely overlooked. Tin-printing for example.

An exhibition which did not have the same impact as Printing and the mind of man, but which was significant as much for what it said about the overlooked areas of printing history as it for what it actually displayed was Season’s greetings: an exhibition of British biscuit tins 1868-1939, which was put on at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 1971.[1] Tin-printing was, and remains, a largely overlooked sector of graphic production whose products include innumerable packaging applications, advertising panels, kitchenware and toys. Though greatly appreciated by collectors, some of whom are extremely knowledgeable on the subject, printing on metal, like printing on other non-paper substrates, remains resolutely on the margins of printing history. General histories of printing generally make no mention of it. Histories of graphic design, which are usually focused on the twentieth century, are more likely to mention it, but only from a visual point of view without ever situating it within the overall development of printing since the last quarter of the nineteenth century. And for book history, tin-printing it is one of the many major sectors of graphic production which are de facto considered to have had little or no impact on the technical and economic development of printing, despite the fact that packaging (of which tin-printing is but a part) became the mainstream of  graphic production sometime in the first half of the twentieth century and that tin-printing was at the origin of one of the twentieth century’s leading industrial printing processes: offset lithography.

There are of course reasons why tin-printing has been largely overlooked by printing historians. One of the results of printing and book historians’ traditional tropism with respect to books, newspapers and periodicals was that the early development of tin-printing remained rather obscure since its origins in the middle of the nineteenth century. All the more so since historians were not accustomed to dealing with the very considerable problems which printing on non-paper substrates raised. In order to be able to print on tinplate, printers had to solve the problems involved in establishing a uniform contact between a hard, more or less rigid substrate and the equally hard and unyielding surfaces of lithographic stones, printing metal or woodblocks. They also had to develop inks which would adhere to and remain permanent on the non-absorbent surface of tinplate. A further problem was that tin-printing had been largely incorporated into the metal box making industry, far from the inquisitive eyes of most printing historians.

Today, packaging remains very much a minority interest among printing historians and museums. Historical studies of the subject are few and far between and the AEPM’s census of printing and related museums ( includes only two packaging museums. The London-based Museum of Packaging and Advertising was created by the consumer historian Robert Opie in 1984 and has gone from strength to strength ever since. After its third move to larger premises in 2015 it now operates as the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising. The Deutsches Verpackungsmuseum, which opened in 1997 in Heidelberg (Germany), maintains close links with the packaging industry and organises an annual packaging conference and award.

With the growing popularity of graphic design history and the increased visibility of printed ephemera in recent years, subjects which were once the more or less exclusive domain of collectors have begun to find a place in historians’ research agendas, but a great deal remains to be done to extend the historiography of printing in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. For the moment Alec Davis’s comment on historians’ fixation with the most culturally prestigious aspects of graphic communication is as pertinent today as it was in the early 1970s: ‘…academic writers on printing usually dealt with the bookish side of the industry rather than its lowly sides concerned, like tin-printing, with packaging and homely domestic wares.”Printing and the mind of man” is a much nobler concept than “Printing and the stomach of man”, but they both have a history’.[2]

Alan Marshall

[1] Alec Davis, ‘Towards a history of tin-printing’, in Journal of the Printing Historical Society, n° 8, London 1972, p. 54.

[2] Alec Davis, 1972, p. 54.