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Collection Newspaper Pictorials: World War I Rotogravures, 1914 to 1919

The Rotogravure Process

Gravure printing originated in the early nineteenth century. The process did not become widespread until the early twentieth century, however, when newspapers embraced this new technology. Characterized by quality halftone reproductions printed at high speed on a variety of paper stock, gravure printing allowed the newspaper industry to reproduce photographs and art work on a mass scale on inexpensive newsprint paper.

"Washington's Coffee." Advertisement. New York Tribune, June 22, 1919, 4.

The technology adopted by newspapers is more precisely called rotogravure—gravure printing from an etched cylinder as opposed to a flat plate. Unlike the letterpress, which uses raised or relief printing, gravure uses intaglio printing, in which metal is etched with recessed "cells" to hold the ink. The process was first used in art reproduction because of its high quality tonal gradation and color depth. From this process evolved photogravure—gravure printing where a plate is etched from a photographic image. Fox Talbot of Great Britain produced the first photographic negatives in 1852. Karl Klic (Klitsch or Klietsch) modified Talbot's process in 1879 by using copper cylinders (instead of plates) for rotary printing and rotogravure was born.

Newspapers offered an efficient way to use rotogravure printing because of the industry's economies of scale. Etching a metal cylinder to produce a page of rotogravure was expensive, and high volume printing was essential in order to reduce the cost per page. Publishers who invested in the new technology, however, were rewarded. Rotogravure printing is so consistent that color variations are rare, ink does not smear, and pages can be handled (and bundled for shipping) immediately. Newly equipped newspapers were able to print large pictorial sections that increased readership and advertising revenue.

Newspaper advertisement
"Ryzon, the Perfect Baking Powder." New York Times, June 11, 1916, [12].

Initially Karl Klic kept his new printing process secret, even as his Rembrandt Intaglio Printing Company of London (co-owned with Samuel Fawcett) popularized the production of gravure prints. The first daily newspaper to publish both letterpress and gravure printed pages together was Freiburger Zeitung [Freiburg, Germany] in 1910, for its illustrated Easter Sunday edition. On Christmas, 1912, the New York Times published the first complete rotogravure section and similar pictorial sections began to appear in any newspaper able to afford the cost of the press and cylinders. By the end of World War I, forty-seven American newspapers included rotogravures in their Sunday issues, a number that increased as the financial benefits of rotogravure became evident to newspaper publishers. Rotogravure sections published during the war documented the war effort, popularized classic paintings, detailed the accomplishments of high society, and captured the carefree life of everyday Americans that co-existed with the ferocity of World War I.

By 1932 a George Gallup "Survey of Reader Interest in Various Sections of Sunday Newspapers to Determine the Relative Value of Rotogravure as an Advertising Medium" found that rotogravures were the most widely read sections of the paper and that advertisements there were three times more likely to be seen by readers than in any other section.  The rotogravure process is still used for commercial printing of magazines, postcards, and cardboard product packaging.