The Print Shop Logo on Tractor Feed Paper
Benj Edwards / How-To Geek

In 1984, Brøderbund Software released “The Print Shop,” a pioneering desktop publishing app that allowed anyone with a PC to easily make large banners, signs, and greeting cards at home for the first time. Here’s what made it special.

A Menu-Based Cultural Breakthrough

It’s 1983, and you need to make a banner, poster, or sign for a birthday party. You might use stencils on a poster board, or you could paint letters on a large piece of fabric. If you wanted more than one copy, you could design something by hand and have it photocopied (if it was small), or go to a print shop to have them craft something professional.

Only one year later, you could use a computer and your desktop printer to do that task for you automatically thanks to Brøderbund’s The Print Shop. Using its menu-driven interface, people without graphic design experience could print greeting cards, banners, and letterhead using the dot matrix printers that were common at the time.

an image of creating a greeting card in The Print Shop for the Apple II.
Creating a greeting card in The Print Shop on Apple II.

The Print Shop originally launched on the Apple II for $49.95 (about $130 in 2021 dollars) in May of 1984. Publisher Brøderbund soon ported it to other popular PCs of the day, including the Commodore 64, Atari 800, IBM PC, and Macintosh. It included hundreds of basic clip-art-style drawings (which some have compared to primitive emojis) that you could use to illustrate your creations.

One of the coolest features of The Print Shop was that you could type in any message, and the program would automatically format it so that it could be printed in a large font horizontally on a continuous feed of paper. Since graphics capability wasn’t common in printers in those days, the letters of the words in the banner were usually composed of simple blocks or many smaller characters grouped together to form the shapes of larger letters.

The concept of horizontal tractor-feed banners predated The Print Shop, but Brøderbund’s app definitely helped to popularize them and bring them to the masses.

Teachers used The Print Shop in particular for decorating their classrooms, and after the addition of a calendar-making feature in 1985 (with The Print Shop Companion), many community, school, or business newsletters featured custom Print Shop calendars.

But curiously enough, the original concept behind The Print Shop didn’t feature a printer at all.

Origins of The Print Shop

The Print Shop originated as a program called “Perfect Occasion” in 1983, created by David Balsam and Martin Kahn of Pixellite Software of Richmond, California. Pixellite originally intended to create a digital greeting card program where animated greeting messages would be stored on disk, sent to friends, and only displayed on their computers.

After they looked for a publisher, Brøderbund became interested, and after some brainstorming, Perfect Occasion gained printing capabilities. After about a year’s worth of work, Pixellite’s program morphed into The Print Shop. A young Brøderbund employee named Corey Kosak assisted with translating the program to Commodore 64 and Atari 800 platforms.

The Creators of The Print Shop on the cover of MicroTimes in April 1985.
The creators of The Print Shop on the cover of MicroTimes in April of 1985. MicroTimes

Initially, at least one prominent tech pundit doubted that The Print Shop would succeed due to the obviously computer-generated nature of the graphics. But right out of the gate, The Print Shop found success, regularly topping software sales charts printed in Billboard Magazine (Yes, they did that for a while.) over the next year, winning numerous awards from computer magazines and selling over 500,000 copies by late 1986.

Sales of The Print Shop soon overtook Brøderbund’s best-selling game Where in the World Is Carmen San Diego, and the firm followed the application with similarly named creative titles such as The Music Shop and The Toy Shop. Clones such as PrintMaster soon sprang up, inspiring a lawsuit that was later settled.

Making “Subversive Software” by Limiting Choices

In 1984, The Print Shop felt delightful to use, which is one of the major reasons that it became so popular. You didn’t need to type in any arcane commands, press any special keys, or even draw anything at all (although it did include a basic pixel-editing mode if you were so inclined). You’d just follow a series of onscreen menus to design a card, banner, or something else from lists of options.

Pixellite knew that if people became overwhelmed with choices, they might be afraid of doing something creative with their computers, so they purposefully made The Print Shop as simple as possible. “Everybody has talent,” said co-creator David Balsam in an interview for the April 1985 issue of Micro Times. “Martin and I just decided to help foment the revolution by liberating people’s artistic imaginations. Our own brand of subversive software.”

The Print Shop main menu for Apple II.
The Print Shop’s menu-driven interface was easy to use.

Computer graphics were a primitive and messy thing back then, especially if you wanted to print them out. In the early 1980s, if you owned a computer printer, it was most likely a dot-matrix model, which used a vertical line of pins striking against an inked ribbon to imprint text onto paper. Most dot-matrix printers used tractor-feed paper, which usually came in a large box, accordion-folded, with a series of holes on each side of the page. The edges with holes on them were usually perforated so that you could remove them after printing if you wanted.

A Star Delta-10 dot matrix printer.
A Star Delta-10 dot matrix printer seen in an ad from 1983. Star

Of the dozens of models of printers available, many used their own incompatible standards, and the Apple II didn’t include its own built-in printer interface, so many third-party Apple II printer interface cards also used incompatible standards. The makers of The Print Shop put a huge effort into covering as many possible combinations of interface card and printer as possible so that The Print Shop felt like a painless experience. Between that and the built-in menu system, The Print Shop became easy enough for anyone to use.

If you wanted to make a greeting card, for example, you’d put The Print Shop disk into your Apple II disk drive, turn the computer on, and load up the program. On the main menu, you’d choose “Settings,” and tell the program which kind of printer you had. Then, you’d hit Escape to go back a menu level and choose “Greeting Card,” which would let you select a border, a font, and a graphical image to put on the card. Then, you could enter a custom message with the Apple II keyboard.

A Halloween card made in Print Shop by Benj's dad in the 1980s.
A Halloween card (colored with crayons) made in The Print Shop by the author’s dad in the 1980s. Benj Edwards

Once you set up the card how you liked it using the onscreen menus, you’d print it to a piece of paper. The Print Shop would automatically print in such a way that you’d only need to fold it twice to make a simple bi-fold greeting card.

If you wanted to print a banner, you’d select “Banner” from the menu list, choose a font, and then begin the printing process, which was often slow and noisy. But thanks to continuous-feed paper, the banner could end up being quite long—the first version of The Print Shop supported messages up to 56 characters in length.

A photo of a 1980s birthday party featuring a tractor-feed banner.
Tractor-feed banners often appeared at birthday parties, like this one in 1988. SuennaJoe

But the result felt magical at the time, and Print Shop banners became a tech-fueled cultural experience unique to that time period. If you went to school in the U.S. in the 1980s, it’s likely that you saw at least one tractor-feed Print Shop banner hanging on your schoolroom wall at some point.

How to Run “The Print Shop” Today

Over the years, The Print Shop continued to iterate and gain new features, eventually becoming a sort of InDesign-lite with some Photoshop elements thrown in, and customers kept coming: By 2001, The Print Shop series had sold over 10 million copies for various platforms.

The Print Shop product line in 1986.

Today, The Print Shop product line still exists, and it’s sold by Encore, which owns the rights to the Brøderbund name and “The Print Shop.” It’s no longer the menu-driven program that it once was and some reviews aren’t stellar, but if you want to pay modern homage to the past, you can get Print Shop Deluxe 23.1 for $69.99 on their website.

But we suspect that you didn’t read this to find the modern incarnation of The Print Shop. If you’d like to tinker around with the original 1984 Apple II version, you can run it in your browser thanks to the Internet Archive. Sadly, you can’t print from that version, but you can get a feel for the intuitive menu system and browse some of the graphics.

A "How-To Geek" banner made in The Print Shop on Apple II
Benj Edwards / How-To Geek

If you do want to make a vintage banner or greeting card from The Print Shop, you can run the Micro M8 Apple II emulator with a disk image of The Print Shop on Mac or PC, and then print to an emulated dot matrix printer that outputs as a PDF file. It takes some tinkering, but the results can be printed out and taped together to simulate a vintage 1980s dot-matrix banner. Have fun!

RELATED: Play 1,785 Classic Arcade Games Right Now on The Internet Archive (No Quarters Necessary)

Profile Photo for Benj Edwards Benj Edwards
Benj Edwards is a former Associate Editor for How-To Geek. Now, he is an AI and Machine Learning Reporter for Ars Technica. For over 15 years, he has written about technology and tech history for sites such as The Atlantic, Fast Company, PCMag, PCWorld, Macworld, Ars Technica, and Wired. In 2005, he created Vintage Computing and Gaming, a blog devoted to tech history. He also created The Culture of Tech podcast and regularly contributes to the Retronauts retrogaming podcast.
Read Full Bio »