In 1939, Lithography Came To Fanzines — But Why?

Print quality mattered in early science fiction fanzines. The credibility of the editors and authors was projected by the appearance of their publications — and this sometimes translated into professional opportunities. Access to a printing press in the 1930s was a luxury most couldn’t afford.

Beginning in 1932, Conrad H. Ruppert reshaped the world of fan publications with the printing press he bought with money saved by working in his father’s bakery. He printed issues of the most prominent fanzines of the period, including The Time Traveller, Science Fiction Digest, and Charles D. Hornig’s The Fantasy Fan. It’s not unreasonable to assert that the professional appearance of Hornig’s leaflet-sized ‘zine contributed to his ascension to the editorship of Wonder Stories at the age of 17. (You can read much more about Conrad H. Ruppert here.)

Without a friend like Ruppert, fans were limited to the only only affordable means of duplication at the time — the hectograph and the mimeograph. Both were limited in the quality and detail of reproduction. Many fanzine experimented with both, as seen in the evolution of Walter E. Marconette’s Scienti-Snaps.

But in early 1939, a new printing technology — lithography — began to radically transform the look and feel of fanzines. I say ‘new,’ because we haven’t seen any examples of this technique used in fan publications prior to 1939.

Lithography was invented in the late 1700s, when slabs of limestone were inscribed with grease pencil and rolled with ink. Rotary offset lithography using metal plates was developed in 1875. Technology for Photostats, an early version of photographic reproduction, was developed in the early 1900s.

In 1939, Larry Farsaci was an active fan and a founding member of the Fantasy Amateur Press Association (FAPA). In the March FAPA mailing that year (#7), he included a single-sheet lithographed image. This is the earliest example we’ve seen in fan-produced material.

Lithographed image by Larry Farsaci, March 1939, FAPA mailing #7

The difference in clarity and resolution between this litho image and previous hecto or mimeo reproductions is immediately evident. Later in 1939, Fantasy News published a lithographed image on its cover. Ad Astra followed suit in its January 1940 issue with an image described as a “planograph.”

In 1940 and 1941, the first fully-lithographed fanzines appeared. A notable example is the successor to Scienti-Snaps, Marconette’s Bizarre.

Another ambitious example, the “semi-professional” magazine Stardust, edited by William Lawrence Hamling.

Stardust, v1n1, March 1940

Fanzines using lithography gave the publications a step-function upgrade in attractiveness and readability. Great! But it’s not like lithography was new to the world. The question we’re working to answer is: What changed that made it possible for fanzines to utilize this method of printing?

  • Did the cost of lithography (aka offset printing) significantly decline, perhaps due to some technical innovation?
  • Did fans have more money to spend? Possible, since the Great Depression had largely abated.
  • Was there a “Conrad H. Ruppert of lithography?” Marconette gives credit to the staff of Stardust for assistance in the production of Bizarre.

After substantial digging and help from a number of printing historians, we’ve been able to stitch together a strong hypothesis for this transition. The primary factor appears to be the growing availability of low-cost, easy-to-operate offset lithography equipment through the mid-1930s and early 1940s. Other developments also likely contributed, including new “photo-resist” (light-sensitive) coatings for creating lithograph plates via photography.

A major clue was provided by Walter J. Daugherty’s fanzine Fan, number 7, March 1946. The issue was dedicated to a single article titled “How to Print an Amateur Paper.” We sourced our copy from two collectors: John L. Coker III provided a partial copy that led us to the material, and Sam McDonald was able to supply the critical pages that refer specifically to offset lithography.

Fan, n7, March 1946, edited by Walter J. Daugherty

From this we know that by 1946 offset photo-lithography was available in “all large cities” at reasonable rates — $3 in 1946 translates to about $42 today. Most fanzines had circulations well below 300.

One word in this article led us to a key insight: “Multilith.” This isn’t a generic term for a printing technology. It’s a brand name, and refers to a line of offset printing presses manufactured by the Addressograph-Multigraph Corporation of Cleveland, Ohio (hereinafter AM).

This company is a fascinating case study of a firm that prospered during the Great Depression, at least in part by continuing to invest in research and development. From their annual reports, we can see their introduction of a series of offset presses that were central to the more general and affordable availability of lithography.

In 1933, AM patented and introduced the Multilith Model 1227, likely the first office-sized, electrically-powered offset printhead.

Addressograph-Multigraph Corporation’s Multilith Model 1227
From the 1933 Annual Report of the Addressograph-Multigraph Corporation

In 1938, AM reported that the Multilith had become a substantial part of their business — an indication that this equipment was reaching a wider audience.

From the 1938 Annual Report of the Addressograph-Multigraph Corporation

In 1941, AM advanced this product line with the introduction of the Multilith Model 1250. This press and its namesake successors appear to have dominated small-shop and office lithography for the next few decades. Some of these machines are still in use today.

From the 1941 Annual Report of the Addressograph-Multigraph Corporation
Addressograph-Multigraph Corporation’s Multilith Model 1250

This is almost certainly the model of offset press referred to in the 1946 article.

By 1939, the First Fans were mostly young adults. Some had jobs (though many did not) and so were in a position to take advantage of this superior and now-accessible printing technology. The ability to easily replicate finely-detailed originals through photography enabled new levels of artistic expression. It seems apparent that these factors came together in the late 1930s to spur a dramatic advance in fan publishing.