Archives for the month of: August, 2017

The Digital Reader brought us an account last year of The Oxford English Dictionary‘s adding some Singapore-ian and Hong Kong-ese words to the dictionary. The dictionary editors are really burnishing their inclusivity chops: an emoji recently became word of the year.

Of course adding loan-words to English is nothing new. A loan-word is probably just a word which we borrowed recently enough to be able to remember the connection. Few of us think of beef and pork as loan-words. If you lived in Scotland you wouldn’t think a gigot was a loan-word — it’s what you’d call a leg of lamb. Scotland probably has more French loan-words than English: the auld alliance! Did English borrow the word book from German? Did we even borrow borrow from them? Not to mention loan, and word too? And let’s not even think about Latin. Any language, but perhaps especially a world language like English will contain thousands of words lifted from other tongues. Food is a ripe source of loan-word formation, as exotics get imported and have to be called something. Eggplant is called aubergine in Britain (and of course France). Brits also talk about a courgette, while we Americans go slightly further south and call it zucchini (though Italians would refer to one of them as zucchino). A recent arrival is quinoa — the best feature of which seems to be that it’s pronounced keen-wah. The earliest reference to quinoa in the OED dates from 1598 though. If a purist wanted to be rid of all loan-words, he’d have to sit there in silence.

And now here comes news (via A.V. Club and The Passive Voice) of a new etymology tool, Time Traveller, from Merriam-Webster. You can now check the adoption dates of all those loan-words. Just enter a date, or in earlier times a century, and find the words introduced then.

The OxfordWords blog asks for your help in providing earlier sources than they have on hand for a couple of Singaporean words. If you find any print usage of a word earlier than the oldest reference in the OED they will always be happy to hear from you.

This link takes you to an OED Editor’s answers to some recent questions. They do welcome suggestions and queries.  is their Twitter hashtag.

When printing by letterpress it was always necessary to ensure that the type was level so that every letter would be impressed into the paper with exactly the same pressure. Life being what it is this is not always as straightforward as one might like to hope. Type is always cast to the same height: type height (0.918 inches in UK and USA). When a forme of type is locked up it is gently beaten down with a wooden batten so that all the sorts sit firmly on their bases. But perfection is always elusive, and once it’s put onto the press, the pressman would probably need to pack some areas of the impression cylinder with little strips of paper to ensure that a particular area wasn’t starved of ink because of being slightly further away from the type. Rather than attempt to raise a small area of type, the problem is solved by bringing the sheet of paper closer to that bit of the type page than others by raising the height of the cylinder in that spot by adding a little bit of paper. This packing process, part of the press make-ready, was one of the elements of the expense of letterpress printing, as the pressman would pull proof after proof to ensure ink balance and evenness of impression.

It’s a bit hard to see, but on this picture of page 239 of Moby-Dick the impression on the right hand side of this paragraph is significantly lighter than on the left. Compare “snow-” at the end of the fourth last line with “white” on the following line. This comes from the photographic reprint of the Arion Press Moby-Dick. The original book was designed and printed in 1979 by Andrew Hoyem with wood engravings by Barry Moser, cut on endgrain boxwood. The original folio text was set in 18pt Goudy Modern. In the California University Press reprint the whole is reduced by about 66%, but the cool spot on this page must result from a similar light area in the original. The problem could be simply a lack of ink in this area, but that, one would expect, would lead to a similar paleness all the way down the page (or across, depending on imposition) — and it doesn’t. The blemish might only appear in a few of the Arion Press’ edition of 265 copies: the pressman may well have picked up on the packing problem, and have corrected it, discarding a number of problem sheets, but evidently not the one from which CUP shot their offset black/white trade version.

All in all the book is a magnificent achievement. Such tiny blemishes do not detract from the reader’s experience: indeed most people will not even be aware of the lighter patch, which I show only to illustrate the point.

When I was reviewing Mark Kurlansky’s Paper, I suggested that there might be an interesting story behind wallpaper — one of the many topics he fails to enlarge upon. There is.

Wallpaper isn’t something you are careful to preserve. When you redo your house, you tend to rip off the old paper, little recking the needs of paper historians 500 years in the future. This means that solid evidence is rather thin on the ground.

Chinese walls had been being papered since at least 200BC, but European wallpaper got started in the Middle Ages, as a cheaper substitute for tapestries or brocade-lined walls. According to the Wallpaper History Society, “The earliest papers are often called ‘black-and-white’ papers because they were printed in carbon ink and often used to line the inside of wooden boxes, or chests. A fragmentary design that includes the arms of England surrounded by Tudor roses, masks and vases of flowers has been found at Besford Court in Worcestershire; c.1550-70 in date.” And wallpaper had become popular enough in the 16th and 17th centuries for the Protectorate under Oliver Cromwell to ban its manufacture, encouraged by the Puritan government which saw wallpapering your wall, like so much else, as irredeemably frivolous. Later governments however saw wallpapers as revenue enhancers — they were taxed in Britain from 1712 to 1836.

Early wallpapers had of course to be manufactured as sheets of fairly small dimension — limited by the size of mould which a vatman could handle. It wasn’t till the invention of the Fourdrinier machine that rolls could be produced and these would be printed by rotary letterpress machines bringing wallpaper to the masses (well, the middle classes anyway). If the advertisement above is realistic it shows a deliberately anachronistic printing scene: the hand press, if used on a roll of paper, had to be being used as a sort of de luxe harking-back to the olden days.

Printing of early wallpapers would be by wood block. Today you can see people in India stamping cloth with inked wood blocks in almost exactly the way in which early wallpapers would be done.

Next Cole & Son show similar block printing, on a slightly more industrialized scale, plus hand screen printing and also the use of a large web press of indeterminate type.

As this next Laura Ashley video shows (expensive) wallpaper is one of the applications for which rotogravure is still used. This is hardly surprising, as color fidelity across long runs is perhaps even more important in wallpapers than it is for green pea can labels.

(If you don’t see videos here, please click on the title of this post so as to view it in your browser.)

Texture can be added to wallpapers, either by flocking, originally done by adding woollen fluff to the ink, or by embossing the paper. Anaglypta (a word featured twice in The Blackhouse by Peter May: surely once is enough for any mystery novel) is not a word I’d ever come across before, though I was, it turns out, brought up with anaglypta wallpaper in our bathroom. The house had been built in 1874, (and divided into flats after World War II) so this bit of decoration couldn’t have been original since Anaglypta wasn’t invented till 1887. Frederick Walton developed Lincrusta wallpaper as a substitute for pressed plasterwork in 1877. A mixture of linseed oil, sawdust, resin, chalk, zinc oxide is spread onto a paper base. Rollers embossed a relief design into the coated paper. Anaglypta was created by Thomas Palmer 10 years later as a cheaper alternative: it omits the coating, and is thus less durable, but clearly survived long enough for me to be able to push in the little raised bubbles in the design. But maybe it was Lincrusta I was destroying after all: the timing would be a little better.

The Victoria and Albert Museum has A Short History of Wallpaper, which focuses rather on the development of the literary trope of wallpaper as metaphorical cover-up. We still talk of papering over our differences.

We are used to wallpaper being printed with a repeating design, but the real top-of-the-market stuff features scenic tableaus. Panoramic landscapes first became popular in France. To cover the walls of a large room without repeating a scene, 20 to 30 lengths were printed, with each length about 10 feet high and 20 inches wide (300cm by 50cm). To print such scenes, using thousands of hand-carved blocks and hundreds of colors called for precision. Printing on multiple sheets which would then be glued together, color and pattern matching had to be spot on. The Zuber company in Rixheim and Dufour in Mâcon and Paris were the main producers. The Zuber wallpaper in the Diplomatic Reception Room in the White House is a famous example. It was salvaged from a house in Maryland, and was only installed in the White House in 1961. See History Magazine for more on this.

The Zuber wallpaper in the Diplomatic Reception Room, circa 2009. White House Historical Association. See

The Zuber company still exists, producing the same sort of meticulously painted scenic wallpapers. They have a fantastic video at their website. Although the website is all in French (there is an English option), there is no commentary on the video. The only sound is a somewhat frantic music track: just turn off your sound, I’d suggest. This is the video to watch: it shows a medieval-looking plant in production. The number of wood blocks for each panel is mind-boggling, and their storage almost unbelievable. The website, which is well worth ranging through, tells us their wood blocks are listed as historic monuments!

I can’t even bear to think what papering a room in Zuber paper would cost. No wonder the White House used a salvaged set.

The following note appears in the Playbill for the Mostly Mozart Festival’s production of The Dark Mirror: Zender’s Winterreise , an orchestrated version of Schubert’s Winterreise with a lot of dramatic black and white projected images and film, sung by Ian Bostridge.

A note on the projected typeface

In projecting text for live performance, font or typeface becomes a storytelling tool. In The Dark Mirror, we are projecting English translations of a German poem. Typeface in German is fraught with politics and subjectivity more than in most other languages, where medieval blackletter typefaces like the German Fraktur were replaced by the much more legible Antiqua typefaces as early as the 16th century. In Germany, the gothic script Fraktur coexisted with Antiqua fonts until the second world war. For some, the ornate Fraktur lettering was the only truly national typeface. “Grotesque,” or early sans-serif typefaces, emerged in the early 19th century and quickly became popular as easy to read, specifically at a distance. Two Grotesque fonts have become embedded into the design of The Dark Mirror: Akzidenz-Grotesk, a typeface released by the Berthold Type Foundry in Berlin in 1896, and Grotesque No. 9, the typeface employed by the iconoclastic British Vorticist magazine BLAST, published only twice, in 1914 and 1915.

Well, it’s nice to see type being taken so seriously, though the story we’re given here is so soft-focussed as to be almost meaningless. I dare say two faces were used, though I only noticed one. The justification for dragging in the Grotesk, is rather lost by the omission of the more interesting synonym for sans serif — Gothic — which ties back more dramatically to the Fraktur story. Fraktur did survive longer in Germany than elsewhere, but it was by no means an exclusively German phenomenon. Look at Caxton’s work. To describe Antiqua faces (the general descriptive name we give to what we’d think of as ordinary typefaces) as “much more legible” demands the comeback “Yes, more legible to Antiqua readers, but not to black letter readers I’m sure”. It’s a bit reminiscent of those primate researchers who’d use human faces in testing chimpanzee facial recognition abilities, because human faces differ so much.

As to whether sans serif type is really easier to read, whether from close to or from a distance, the jury’s still out. The texts at this concert were undeniably easy to read, though I suspect that this was because they were nicely large, rather than because they were set in Akidenz-Grotesk.

Here’s a trailer from the earlier London performance.

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This is Shelf Awareness‘ story from 1 August, 2017:

PBS will launch the Great American Read, an eight-part television series and nationwide campaign that “explores the joy of books and the power of reading, told through the prism of America’s 100 best-loved books, chosen by the public.” The initiative is designed to “spark a national conversation about reading and the books that have inspired, moved and shaped us.”

In addition to the PBS series, the Great American Read will feature community reading programs and special events, and a range of digital and social media initiatives. The series will include testimonials from notable figures in the entertainment, sports, news and literary worlds, and culminate in the first-ever national vote to choose “America’s Best-Loved Book.”

The Great American Read launches in spring 2018 with a multi-platform digital and social campaign leading up to the reveal of the 100 books selected by the American public and an advisory panel of literary professionals. Beginning with a two-hour kick-off event in May, the documentary special will feature appearances by celebrities and everyday Americans passionately advocating for and explaining their personal connections to their favorite books.

Voting and social media engagement will continue throughout summer, with six episodes of the series exploring the nominated books through various themes, including “Being American,” “Heroes,” “Growing Up,” “What We Do for Love” and more. PBS stations will partner with local organizations and booksellers to activate and inspire the next generation of readers through library, education and community initiatives. Moving toward autumn, voting will close and America’s top 10 books will be revealed, counting down to America’s Best-Loved in the final episode of the series in September.

“The time is right for this nationwide reading initiative that will encourage conversations and complementary activities in communities across the country. We can’t wait to see what America chooses,” said Beth Hoppe, PBS chief programming executive & general manager, general audience programming.

“The Great American Read will speak to all Americans,” added Jane Root, CEO of TV production company Nutopia. “These books tell our story, explore our passions and celebrate the depth and range of our culture. Which book will win? I don’t know, but I’m super excited to follow the journey and find out.”

This sounds promising. Of course “best” lists don’t mean much, but the process of discussion (and invitation to think) are likely to do much good.

Here’s a Publishers Weekly story, and the PBS press release announcing the series. (Can’t decide what “(w.t.)” means. Can’t be working title surely, can it?) The Publishers Weekly story clarifies how the initial list of 100 books has been chosen; it was “chosen through a demographically representative survey of ordinary Americans conducted via YouGov, a polling organization. Based on the question ‘What is your best-loved novel?,’ the YouGov survey produced a list of 1,200 titles.” This list was then whittled down by “a volunteer panel of ‘respected industry professionals including heads of not-for-profit literary organizations, educators, a librarian and members of the literary press,'” So all you’re going to get to vote for is the order in which these 100 “best books” should be ranked. Better than nothing I suppose. Let’s hope folks join in.

Louis-Nicholas Robert (also known as Nicholas-Louis) was the first to make a paper-making machine, which he patented in Paris in 1799. It made a continuous roll of paper by using a paddle-wheel to scoop pulp up onto a wire mesh where it was drained and then compacted by rollers in the press section. But Robert was unable to develop the machine, and the scene of action moved from France to England, where two London stationers, Henry and Sealy Fourdrinier invested £31,830/16/4 in a vain attempt to commercialize the concept. After they went bankrupt the idea was taken up by Bryan Donkin who in 1804 built the world’s first practical paper machine at Two Waters Mill in Hertford.

The Fourdrinier’s return on their huge investment was the immortality of having the machine named after them. After development the Fourdrinier machine, which is still the workhorse of the paper industry, operates as shown in this exploded diagram.

(Both illustrations are taken from J. H. Ainsworth’s quaint Paper: The Fifth Wonder*, Thomas Printing & Publishing Co. Ltd, 1959.)

The pulp in the head box is in a solution of 97% water, and flows out through the Slice, an adjustable opening allowing thicker or thinner paper to be made. Fibers released onto the Wire will want to align themselves in the direction of the flow so the whole unit is shaken a bit from side to side so that some of the fibers end up overlapping one another thus increasing the strength of the bonds. The Wire extends from the Breast roll to the Couch roll (pronounced “cooch” in the paper world) with Table rolls and Suction boxes between them promoting drainage. When the paper leaves the Wire it is still 80% water and the Presses compact it and force out more water, getting it down to 60% or 70% water when it jumps over to the Dryers where heated felts evaporate off more water. In the Calendar stacks the paper is ironed by slippage between rollers, then wound up on the Reel and rewound to desired lengths and widths by the Winder.

Here’s a 4 minute video of Kraft paper (brown paper) being made on a huge Fourdrinier.

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For what came before, please see  four earlier posts “Paper making by hand”, the first of which can be found here.


* For those who want to know, the other four wonders are motor vehicles, meat, steel, and petroleum. Mr Ainsworth has ranked his wonders in U.S. sales volume at 1959’s values.

The University of Iowa has produced a dynamic map showing the spread of printing across Europe between 1450 and 1500. Follow the link above, and click the Animate button then the Spread of printing button, and watch fifty years of expansion. You can do this with the other categories too.

This was brought to our attention through the American Historical Association’s site in a piece about getting started in Book History.

Do we really have to face the translation of everything into money? We may wish we could keep bookshops as places where we can look at books and buy them when we are inspired, but, in the real world, bookselling is a business, and profit is necessary. We all know that costs mount, especially as rents just keep rising — as they must in response to the laws of capitalism. Sure capitalism may have done us all a lot of good, but can’t anyone come up with a modification which would mean “good” things get a break? Or are we doomed to see all retail outlets operated by merchants of international schmattes?

Peter Glassman, owner of Books of Wonder has just announced the opening of a new store on West 84th Street in addition to their original location on West 18th Street. The New York Times quotes him “Given the rise in retail rents along 18th Street, I am not optimistic about our ability to renew the lease”, so the new second store is there as an insurance against the first one’s having to close. Just walk along New York streets and you’ll encounter a surprisingly large number of shuttered stores. (I guess real estate people take tax write-offs against their losses from empty buildings — they certainly don’t seem to be in any hurry to re-rent. Increases of 3 or 4 times the current rent are being proposed on lease renewals. Surely this can’t be sustainable.) The Mayor of New York City is seized of the problem. Hasn’t figured out what to do about commercial rents, but does recognize that having all the little shops shut down because they can’t afford to pay the rent is not “a good thing”. We just had an announcement that the City will now pay for legal representation for tenants faced with eviction from their apartment by landlords — previously a very uneven playing field. This expense will apparently be more than balanced by reductions in the cost of providing housing the homeless after the landlords have thrown them out.

People power can help. In our neighborhood we recently “saved” our local supermarket whose lease had been gazumped by a chain pharmacy. We all turned out on the street in front of the store; local politicians got involved; and eventually the pharmacy accepted that bad publicity didn’t really work; so we have our supermarket, for the next few years at least. I don’t know if we could turn out impressive enough crowds for a bookstore though! Still, somehow bookstores are still opening. Maybe some of those landlords are getting fed up with keeping properties empty. We obviously need to reinforce this behavior by changing the tax deduction for losses of this kind.

Why is it that landlords are the only ones who appear to be guaranteed to make money? (And this is a problem which long predates our current administration led by an über-landlord!) We all know that they are not making any more real estate; quite the opposite I fear. I suppose there’s no way to get to a world where land is a public good. As far as I can figure it, nobody has any basic right (other than force majeure) to own land. Just because your great-great-great, etc., etc., etc, grandfather bought it or even worse just beat everyone else to the punch, killed off all contenders, and grabbed the land in your home valley should not, in any sensible ethical scheme, allow you to collect rent from me for settling on a small bit of that valley floor. Calls for the socialization of land tenure are unlikely to meet with any kind of positive response, but at least let us allow it to flit through our mind. We need to consider for whose benefit this whole game is for, and whether that’s as it should be.

Jonathan Pie (a socially alert commentator portrayed by comedian Tom Watson) as usual hits it radically on the nose. Sensitive ears may want to be aware that his outspokenness includes lots of cuss-words. For non-Brits: Swan Vestas is a brand of matches.

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CutStar is a new name for a phenomenon we used to have to describe as having a sheeter at the front end of the press. Here is Printing Industries of America‘s take on it. As it is cheaper to buy paper in rolls rather than sheets, and usually cheaper to print shorter runs on a sheet-fed press, the idea that economies might be achieved by sheeting on press began to grow in popularity in the later years of the 20th century. CutStar, a Heidelberg trade name, integrates this into the press giving you the flexibility of sheet-fed printing. The PIA description implies that, by disconnecting the cutter unit, the press can be used as a web press for longer runs.

As usual, if you don’t see a video here, click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.

I find these freakishly amazing. They are printed from electrotypes made from the original wood blocks, and come from Dahl & Sinnott, 308 Pearl Street, Hartford, Connecticut.

From Printing Art, Vol. 35, 1920

From Printing Art, Vol. 35, 1920

It is almost unbelievable that someone could cut this sort of detail in wood. (Click to enlarge the illustration so you can see the detail.)

See the recent post Wood engraving or woodcut.