Lost knowledge, collotypes, and Grandma Tootsie’s cinnamon rolls

A blog about losing knowledge. I wrote this post years ago for my old blogspot account and, ironically enough, almost lost it when I transferred to the new format. I found an archived copy of it, and thought I’d share it with my new readers. The topic still intrigues me, and the article reminds me that I ought to try and catch up with John. I hope he’s still working in the same medium he was back when I wrote this article.

There used to be people who could tell what sort of trees were overhead by the sound the wind made as it blew through their leaves. There are very few of these people, if any, remaining in the world today and most of us will never realize that such knowledge ever existed.


On February 5, 2010 the last speaker of the Bo language, a woman named Boa Sr, died. Although her language had been extensively studied, it will never again be truly understood with all its nuance and subtle beauty. Boa Sr was the last keeper of this knowledge. She was a bridge between the past and the present and her death seals us permanently into a new era. There is no going back. Only forward.

The loss of knowledge is constant, slow and steady. Think of your grandmother’s sewing machine, covered in dust, its manual long lost. She did not need the instructions, you never needed to learn and now that she has gone the machine will sit idly until someday NO-ONE will know how to use it.

My Great-Grandmother used to make cinnamon rolls from a recipe she held in her head. It was her grandmother’s recipe. She never taught any of the children how to make them, never wrote down the recipe and now it is lost forever. I know it stared with a “a small handful of flour and enough butter to make it moist”. We will never get to cinnamon rolls from there.

I will never make these.  Nor will you.

This process goes faster and faster as technology progresses. How long until no-one remembers how to program punch cards? or program games for the Atari?

Today I met someone who knows how to print Collotype. Real collotype, with gelatin and a host of toxic, photosensitive chemicals. The process was replaced in commercial printing with the advent of offset lithography and has become almost completely obsolete in the digital era. Young artists do not need to master such a complicated, time consuming and hazardous technique to get the results they want. Even Wikipedia’s page on the collotype is woefully vague. This knowledge is fading. John is one of the last keepers of this gateway into our past, and he is not an old man.  He is a man with strong roots into our own past, into the how of things.  A true printmaker.  A dying breed.

After some searching I found a shop in Florence, Italy that still prints fine art editions in with traditional Collotype technique.  Alinari Printworks is one of the last gateways into this dying art form.  This is a commercial printhouse, specializing in museum reproductions.  They do not seem to be creating NEW pieces in the medium. The medium has stagnated.  The end is nigh.  But, boy are the prints beautiful!  No digital print has yet come close to achieving the glorious color and lush surface of a collotype.