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’ve been unable 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.

We’d love to hear from anyone who can provide insight on this little mystery.

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