Philadelphia, well known for its contributions to the printing industry, has continued to remain at the forefront, utilizing digital technology while still embracing its past. Home of the Bennys, the Franklin Institute, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and many more establishments integral to the graphic arts industry, Philadelphia remains the home of some of the most prestigious and successful printing companies in the world.
Throughout the city’s history, a large portion of downtown Philadelphia, from Broad Street to Second, and Girard Avenue to Vine Street North, was peppered with print houses. While some businesses have chosen to relocate to the outlying areas, the region still celebrates its ability to provide quality services that would make their founding father, Benjamin Franklin, proud. Many great companies operate in the area, including world renowned RR Donnelly. There are also those that have weathered the test of time and are now in their second century. Most notable are Pearl Pressman and Smith-Edwards-Dunlap, both ranked in the top 50 printers in the US by American Printer; both have recently celebrated their centennial.
In the autumn of 1793, at age 17, Benjamin Franklin traveled from Boston to New York to seek work as a printer. Striking out in the Big Apple, Franklin headed to Philadelphia, the largest city in America. With only a dollar in his pocket and the experience he’d gained in his brother James’ print shop, Franklin was determined to take the new city by storm. After a trip to London to buy printing equipment went awry, Franklin ended up being stranded across the pond for nearly two years. It took him until the summer of 1726 to return to Philadelphia. From that day forward, Franklin doggedly pursued his dream of becoming a successful printer. At age 22, Franklin opened his first printing office. He soon purchased the Pennsylvania Gazette and was off and running.
As postmaster general, Franklin took advantage of his post to begin mailing his newspaper to the colonies in order to keep them united and strong. Franklin became the most successful printer in all the colonies and was appointed as the official printer to the government. He was given the task of printing currency, which prompted him to invent a method to thwart counterfeiters by using a mica additive to the ink and incorporating foil stamping into his design. Franklin also printed other government documents, which led to his appointment as the official printer to Maryland, Delaware, and New Jersey. Best known for his pamphlet Poor Richard’s Almanack, Franklin became even more successful – and wealthy – selling an astounding 10,000 copies annually.
Although Franklin was the most noted printer in America, he wasn’t the only one. Philadelphia printer John Dunlap was responsible for the first printing of the Declaration of Independence, eventually printing it on the front page of The Pennsylvania Evening Post, the first daily publication in America and Franklin’s main competitor. Since the American printers were limited by the British on what items they were permitted to print, many other newspapers followed, such as the Maryland Journal, The Pennsylvania Ledger, The American Gazette, The Essex Journal, The Boston Gazette, and The Connecticut Courant – the oldest continuously printed paper in the U.S.
Printers in today’s Philadelphia face different challenges than those in Franklin’s era. “It’s not only the way people are communicating, it’s the speed by which they are communicating,” said Marge Baumhauer , President of the Graphic Arts Association. “Things are changing.” Based in Trevose, PA, the Graphic Arts Association is one branch of the trinity of agencies geared toward helping members compete in today’s market. Along with the GATF and PIA, the GAA assists in training and educating those in the industry, giving members the opportunity to network and gain insight from other professionals. “Having this triumvirate is a great thing,” says Baumhauer. “The GAA, PIA and GATF are focusing on the new technologies – digital printing, variable date printing, etc. We focus mainly on what we can do to help. The GAA also offers education on topics such as environmental health, safety, and we even have credit and collections experts on staff.”
Printing companies have been able to change with the tides, determined not to be stuck in the days of old. While offset printing had been the main focus for many years, many of the companies have embraced the benefits of digital printing. “About 18 months ago, digital printing really took off,” said Art Stowe, Co-President of the Printing & Graphics Association, MidAtlantic. “It took a while to really catch on, but once it did, it was like a snowball that went over the hill. It kept rolling faster and faster, collecting more snow along the way.” The PGAMA, based in Columbia, MD, focuses on members in the Maryland, DC, York, and Virginia areas. Stowe says that one of the stumbling blocks to incorporating digital printing into some companies was due more to the printers themselves rather than the changes in technology. “It was a mindset deal more than anything,” says Stowe. “Printers are arguing against themselves because digital printing promotes short run. Printers are trained to think of long runs as being the most profitable; the more you run, the less expensive it is per piece. With digital printing, we can accomplish in a fraction of the time what used to take all day with conventional offset.” Stowe adds, “It’s amazing how far digital printing has gone. It’s impressive.”
Variable Data Printing (VDP) is also a focus for many companies who realize its worth. Among myriad studies, InfoTrends/CAP Ventures claims that 23.6 percent of all digital print jobs currently contain variable data. Printers who utilize this technology see an increase in the value of an average order by 24.5 percent, improve response time by 33.9 percent, and perhaps most important, improve customer retention by 47.6 percent.
While Philly houses large corporations like RR Donnelly, there are some that have weathered the test of time and are now in their second century. Most notable are Pearl Pressman and Smith-Edwards-Dunlap, both ranked in the top 50 printers in the US by American Printer; both have also recently celebrated their centennial.
“If you look at the stats, you’ll see that we’re still number 4 or 5 in the country,” said Baumhauer. “In general, it’s a great industry to be in and I’m glad to be a part of it.”