All Aboard! Ships’ Printers and Printing


May 22, 2013 Ephemera Society

By Dr. Teresa Breathnach, November 2012

The large ocean liners of the early to mid twentieth century have become symbols of both luxury and tragedy. Ephemera associated with them has always held souvenir status and is now highly sought after by collectors. Indeed my own path strayed into this field as a result of inheriting my mother’s souvenirs of her trip on board the Queen Elizabeth from Southampton to New York in the 1950s – but perhaps few would realise that much of this ephemera was printed wholly or in part on board the ships themselves.

From a ‘tiny hand press and a hatful of type’ to ‘glistening’ modernity, on board print-shops ranged in size and facilities according to the ship or shipping company in question. Whilst a 14,000 ton liner might have carried a single printer and modest equipment, a much larger ship might have carried five or six printers and could be well equipped with two or three presses and a Linotype machine. Notices or other items that were comprised mainly of text were usually hand set on board, but passenger lists, menus, programmes or other material featuring illustrative matter were printed in two separate operations: large numbers of these were produced as ‘blanks’ by shore printers and details particular to a specific day and voyage were printed on board.  Although some of these were only required once or twice during the voyage, pieces like entertainment programmes were needed daily. It’s difficult not to be impressed by the mammoth task of printing menus for breakfast, lunch and dinner for up to 2000 passengers every day, often divided according to class between two or three separate dining rooms.

Cunard ProgrammePrint-shops carried a more select sample of the typefaces that their printers were likely to have been accustomed to using ashore. This sample was relatively contained, and does not seem to have changed extensively over time. An earlier ship like the Titanic carried Stephenson Blake’s serif Westminster as well as an unidentified san serif[1]. Later ships generally carried 6-12pt sizes in an Old-Style Roman and a san serif like Spartan for items like menus and programme cards. The Queen Elizabeth’s compositors worked with 36 cases of type including the serif face Winchester (6- 48pt) and Stephenson Blake’s Granby (8- 48pt) – a face similar to Johnson, Gill or Spartan  - for use in setting her programmes, menus and other items[2]. Also of use to them was W.A. Dwiggins’ Metro Light and Bold (18-30 pt) designed for Linotype, a softer alternative to the likes of Futura or Kabel.  Ephemera of Elizabeth’s sister ship, the Queen Mary, shows the use of similar faces, except that is, for Eric Gill’s Jubilee.  Issued by Stephenson Blake in 1935, this was a calligraphic face designed the year before as Cunard. This appears on menus printed in the first year of the ship’s career, but seems to fall out of use after that.

Should surviving documentation allow it, a more widespread study could lead us to a more nuanced appreciation of the role of ship’s printers in the production of shipping ephemera. Sitting at the intersection of graphic design, maritime and printing histories, such a study could put flesh to the bones of our understanding of these ‘sailor printers’.

[1] Bob Richardson, “Titanic Printers: Their Legacy Endures”, Voyage, Issue 13, 2004, p58.

[2] Anon, “Q.E. Printshop”, Caxton Magazine, November 1946, p241-242.


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