Archives for category: Book printing

There’s recently been a bit of correspondence at the SHARP listserv about the diseases affecting printers. (See Printer’s gait, and Printer’s paralysis for the sort of things discussed.)

One response quotes a July 31, 1786 letter from Benjamin Franklin to British physician Benjamin Vaughan:

“In 1724, being in London, I went to work in the Printing-House of Mr. Palmer, Bartholomew Close, as a Compositor. I then found a Practice I had never seen before, of drying a Case of Types, (which are wet in Distribution) by placing it sloping before the Fire. I found this had the additional Advantage, when the Types were not only dry’d but heated, of being confortable to the Hands working over them in cold weather. I therefore sometimes heated my Case when the Types did not want drying. But an old Workman observing it, advis’d me not to do so, telling me I might lose the Use of my Hands by it, as two of our Companions had nearly done, one of whom that us’d to earn his Guinea a Week could not then make more than ten Shillings and the other, who had the Dangles, but Seven and sixpence. This, with a kind of obscure Pain that I had sometimes felt as it were in the Bones of my Hand when working over the Types made very hot, induc’d me to omit the Practice. But talking afterwards with Mr. James, a Letterfounder in the same Close, and asking him if his People, who work’d over the little Furnaces of melted Metal, were not subject to that Disorder; he made light of any Danger from the Effluvia, but ascrib’d it to Particles of the Metal swallow’d with their Food by slovenly Workmen, who went to their Meals after handling the Metal, without well-washing their Fingers, so that some of the metalline Particles were taken off by their Bread and eaten with it. This appear’d to have some Reason in it. But the Pain I had experienc’d made me still afraid of those Effluvia.”

This letter is published in Volume 37 of The Franklin Papers, published by Yale University Press.

I assume the wetness of the types after distribution resulted from washing off the ink.

I wondered what “the Dangles” might be. The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t tell. Seems there’s some sort of ice-hockey usage according to Urban Dictionary. There’s also a 1980s rock group. I assume Franklin must be talking about hands hanging useless because of the effects of lead poisoning.

A post at The Briar Press reassures us that lead in its metallic form cannot be absorbed through the skin. So Franklin’s warning is a bit off: the type he was handling couldn’t have been raised to a temperature sufficient to allow “Effluvia”. However, if he had sucked his fingers to keep them warm after handling cold types this might well have lead to trouble. This suggests that heating the type was a good idea. I suppose there might have been a risk of some lead particles floating about in the air, which was probably of pretty poor quality in most workshops. His neighbor Mr James, letterfounder, turns out to have been right: it’s not the “Effluvia” that’ll get you, it’s the “Particles of the Metal swallow’d with their Food by slovenly Workmen”.

Life expectancy among print workers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was in any case short: in 1850 the average age at death of members of The International Typographical Union was 28. Of course at that time average life expectancy wasn’t great: 42 overall, or 57 if you survived childhood.

A block book, as its name suggests — they tended to be rather short, so wouldn’t have appeared like blocks of paper — would be printed from a block, most often wood, but potentially metal, which was carved to leave the areas to be printed black (or more often dark brown) at surface level while the background would be recessed. The entire page, pictures and the text would be carved by hand. In the illustration below the white areas will all have been carved away to leave the outlines to print. (The red lettering was most likely added by hand after printing.) At my recent post on Tarot there’s a picture of a wood block used to print cards.

Block books, and block-printed anything —indulgences, playing cards, calendars, etc. — were the way you would duplicate materials prior to the rapid development of letterpress printing which followed from Gutenberg’s invention of movable metal types. As the examples of block books which have survived all date from after Gutenberg’s breakthrough, the “prior to” in the first sentence might appear redundant, but what’s true of books isn’t true of all printed materials. Actually we have very few survivals anyway, and the older a block book was the less likely we are to have it come down to us. Certainly block printing, which has been shown to exist in China before the 2nd century, has a long history though evidence for its arrival in Europe before the mid-fifteenth century is lacking.

Wood block printing certainly co-existed with early hot metal printing — no new technology immediately displaces its predecessors. After metal types became available it was not uncommon for the text of a “block book” to be printed on a press using metal type after the illustrations had first been printed from a wood block. Eventually of course metal type text and illustrations cut into wood blocks would be locked up together in a single forme and printed together in a single pass through the press.

Because the “impression” was usually applied manually, by rubbing or hammering the paper against the inked block, block books would only be printed on one side of the paper. If you turned the sheet over and rubbed it again, you’d smudge the ink! The blank sides were often glued together when the book was assembled.

The first printed image of a bloodletting man in Europe, which appeared in a calendar printed as a block book in 1474. Joannes Regiomontanus (1436-1476), Calendarium, Nuremberg 1474.

This is the earliest diagram we have giving instruction on bloodletting. It comes from a 66 page block book calendar printed in 1474. Link via The Collation, the Folger Library’s blog. Read the Collation post for an interesting discussion of the science of bloodletting. Most importantly apparently it was important “to avoid bloodletting when the moon was in the sign of the zodiac governing the part of the body to be bled.” The block book shown comes from the Library of Congress.


A horse of a different color is the book block.


Jeff Peachey posted this image yesterday.

Although I’ve not met him, Mr Peachey, a bookbinder and restorer (and a fairly close neighbor) doesn’t look from his photo to be at all lank-haired and crooked-backed. (Roger Payne might better fit the mould. And I dare say the printer and publisher had plenty of models close to hand.) Back then, book manufacturing was a tough business, and took its toll on the bodies of its workers: for examples see my posts Printer’s gait, and Printer’s paralysis. This verse makes the poor bookbinder seem a rather undesirable mate — the writer implies that he’ll never get to kiss his “admirer”. In the last line there has to be a typo surely. “Press to pour chops” doesn’t mean anything to me. The damage to the “p” hints at a more logical “y” where “chops” would take on its meaning of face, cheeks, mouth. Might this represent a last-minute on-press correction: just hammer part of the “p” away to make it look a bit like a “y”?

The image comes from a self-help book for the nervous Valentine composer, Everybody’s Valentine Writer (Newcastle-on-Tyne: Printed and Published by W. R. Walker, ca. 1850). (I suppose the poor bookbinder has to count as one of the “comic Valentines”.) Note the show-through on page 24: You almost think you might be able to decipher “To a Gentleman” on the back of this page. Page 23 may in fact be read at Typelark. The book must have been printed on a pretty thin, absorbent sheet, and have been over-inked significantly — though it is show-through, not offsetting* that we see, as confirmed by the Typelark image of the back-up page, so over-inking may be less of a problem.

When was the Valentine invented? PBS tells us the earliest real Valentine’s cards (hand made) date “from the late 18th century, and they already resemble the modern valentine: frilly verses punctuated with cute pet names like ‘Turtle Dove,’ written on folded paper and decorated with pink and red hearts.” According to History Cooperative “The first commercially printed Valentine’s Day card was produced in 1913 by Hallmark, known as Hall Brothers at that time.” The presses have kept on rolling: apparently more than 150 million are sold each year.


* Offsetting in this context refers to the inadvertent transfer of an image from one sheet to its neighbor, usually as a result of sheets having been stacked before the ink has dried.

These two tarot cards, ten swords left, Emperor right, measure 4¾” x 2½”, quite similar to the size of a modern pack of cards. They were found in the binding of a book in the Folger Library collection, a 1673 edition of Vincent Reboul’s Le Pelerinage de S. Maximin. Before bookbinding became standardized as something the publisher did for you it was quite common to use waste paper as binding reinforcement materials. Playing cards were usually printed on a fairly substantial bit of paper and would be ideal for case linings.

The Folger Library blog The Collation, in a post entitled Fortune’s Fools, brings us their story along with a brief run-down of the structure of a tarot pack. The cards were printed from a woodblock — here’s an example from the Bibliothèque nationale de France’s collection. (The bits to print black are left at surface height and the rest is cut away.)

Early cards are assumed to have been made entirely by hand. I wonder. Playing cards reached Europe by way of the Middle East, most likely from Egypt. The first documented packs in Europe date from 1440 and 1450 — but I don’t know how they were manufactured. Printing from carved wooden blocks was well established in Europe before Gutenberg’s development of movable metal types — he merely took over the use of the printing press which was already well established. His Bible was printed in the early 1450s. Maybe playing cards were the vector pushing the popularity of the printing press? I wouldn’t be amazed if playing cards arrived in Europe accompanied by the knowledge of how to print them from woodblocks, maybe even accompanied by a woodblock or two — the technology is known to have existed in Egypt in the tenth century: it appears to have originated in China prior to the second century. In fact Gutenberg is known to have been associated with the Master of the Playing Cards, at whose works he learned about the engraving of copper blocks which were used as the Master’s title implies for cards among other things. I would speculate that the black outlines of early playing cards would have been printed from a block, first wood then metal (you could take an image by rubbing or hammering, not just by pressure in a press) and then colored by hand.

It’s no secret, though I didn’t know it, that tarot cards didn’t start out with the mysterious, fortune-telling aura they rejoice in today. They were originally used to play a game, often called trionfitarot in France. (Trionfi can be detected as the origin of the word trumps.) The games may have started in the fourteenth or fifteenth century but the card pack didn’t acquire its divinatory role till the eighteenth century. The local tarot card design, Tarot de Marseille, has become the standard. St Maximin, the subject of the book referenced at the top was of special significance in Marseille. Indeed as The Collation tells us “The book was printed in Marseille, written by a Marseille author, and focuses on three saints (Saint Mary Magdalene, Saint Lazare, and Saint Maximin) with a special connection to a holy grotto (Saint Baume) just outside of the city.”

In a vaguely related coincidence comes this story from Printing Impressions telling us R. R. Donnelley is increasing its capacity to serve the needs of game and trading card publishers. Apparently being locked up at home has prompted many to sort their trading card collections. Have tarot readings increased too? I bet they have.

This news comes at the same time as we are being told that LSC (formerly part of R. R. Donnelley) is closing its Spartanburg,SC catalog plant. Last fall LSC had already announced the closure of its Kendallville IN book plant. Times are tough in the book manufacturing world.


Those of us who go weak at the knees when we see signs of the Ye-Olde-Tea-Shoppe kind just have to bite our tongue and put it all down to yoghs and thorns.

Before the Latin-alphabetic-conquest, Germanic languages were written in a runic alphabet. I grew up thinking runes were those scratches on the edge of a stick or old stone: and of course they often were — but more important than that physical manifestation was the fact that they made up a coherent alphabet! Anglo-Saxon “futhorc” (named after the first six letters of its alphabet — just as ours is after the first two in the Greek alphabet)   is the most familiar runic alphabet to an English-speaking audience. There’s the thorn in third place; yogh is also in the top line under the guise of X. Yogh migrated to the form resembling the number 3 in Middle English.









A few letters from Anglo-Saxon times didn’t make the jump across to the Latin alphabet. Notable among these are yogh (ȝ) and thorn (Þ). In rough terms yogh represented the -ch sound in the Scottish word loch. It used to be written at the start of the word ȝear (year) which would occasionally be transcribed as “gear”. An Anglo-Saxon speaking about that twelve-month span of time would begin with this sort of throat-clearing sound.

In the case of the word year, yogh did move to y, but generally it would turn into -ch, -gh, -g, -z, or -x. The name Menzies (which in Scotland we pronounce Ming-iss) is an example of ȝ being replaced by z. The culprit in “Ye olde” is the thorn, a straightforward -th sound as in, temptingly, “the”. However “ye” as a sort of antique-ish form of “the” shouldn’t be conflated with “ye” the personal pronoun, plural of you, as in “hear ye!”. This “ye” (“y’all” in the southern USA, or “yous yins” or indeed just “ye” in Scotland) would have been spelled with a yogh, ȝe.

However over the years the shape of the thorn does seem to have moved towards that of y — see the illustration below of the Wycliffe Bible. This can surely be the only justification for thinking that our ancestors ever said (well, wrote) “ye” instead of “the”, because if you’d taken off from the thorn in it’s original shape, Þ, wouldn’t you have been more likely to have ended up with Pee Olde Tea Shoppe?

The website Bellaria from Classics for all comes up with an explanation of why we got lots of “ye”s in the King James Version. Their idea just doesn’t sound right to me. If you go to the link, scroll down to the bottom. On the way down you can work through an interesting series of examples of different translations of the Bible, moving from Greek and Latin, through a very German-looking English, and up to the 1611 King James translation. The Bellaria idea is:

“If you go back to the Wycliffe manuscript and look carefully at ‘In þe bigynyng was þe word . . . .’, you will see that þ (‘thorn’, = th) has changed its shape to Ƿ. But while this was happening, ‘th’ was becoming more common and starting to win the day.

“This is where the fun starts. The original printers of the KJV preferred not to use ‘th’ for the word ‘the’ because it would take up too much space, and opted for Ƿe instead. Unfortunately early printing presses came from Germany and Italy and did not possess such a letter. So in the very first texts of the Bible, the London printers replaced it with ‘y’. Result? ‘Ye’, meaning and pronounced ‘the’ at the time, but in time becoming the ‘ye’ we know and love as in ‘ye olde village shoppe’.”

Here is the Wycliffe illustration, followed by Bellaria‘s illustration of the KJV.

Of course it wasn’t the press which was the defining feature in this argument: any press will be happy to make an impression on anything you place below it — a grape, a piece of type, a recusant’s thumb. It’s the metal type that makes the difference. If the printers of the King James Bible really wanted a thorn of þ or of Ƿ shape what was to stop them obtaining one? 1611 isn’t exactly prehistoric times in the story of British printing, and there must have been any number of die sinkers and punch cutters available to create a mould for a thorn if they really needed one.

To me the unconvincing bit in Bellaria‘s story is that if you look at that 1611 edition of the KJV, there’s nary a Y in place of þ or Ƿ. All the “the”s are perfectly happily rendered as t-h-e, just as if the thorn had never stuck in printer’s flesh. In fact I believe that the only “ye”s in the KJV are in fact of the plural personal pronoun sort, where we are addressing a group. “Ye stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye”. (Acts 7:51 for example.) All the “the”s in the KJV are in fact, and have always been, rendered as “the”. So the printers of the King James Bible didn’t suppress the thorn; they actually got rid of yogh in a different “ye”: a switch which may well have occurred many years earlier.

And isn’t that thorn, Ƿ, in Wycliffe getting dangerously close to wynn, ƿ, another lost Anglo-Saxon letter, which stood in for the -w sound, which was not one the Romans used? Maybe there’s a story in that too.

See Mental Floss for an article about 12 letters which didn’t make the alphabet.

Anther literary connection is to J. R. R. Tolkien, a friend of all medievalia. He introduced runes into The Hobbit. Thorin’s map has lots of them:


According to The New York Times someone is stealing unpublished book manuscripts. There appears to be no motive for this — or at least, no consequences have yet been observed although the scam has been going on for at least three years. Could this just be criminal joie de vivre? “Look I can do this, so I’ll show you that I can do it”? Disruption of authorial equanimity (if such a quality exists) is about all that it appears to have achieved.

Once upon a time this would have been a more serious problem — and probably impossible to pull off. When you had to write your book by hand the loss of the manuscript would have been rather terminal. Even after the invention of the typewriter an author would have been reluctant to let one of their two (maybe) copies out of their sight. There used to be a man in Cambridge who was always seen with a sheaf of paper under his arm. He was rumored to have lost the manuscript of his life’s work on the Liverpool Street train, and to have spent the rest of his days trying to put it together again. The loss of just another digital copy is the loss of next to nothing. “Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing.”

Could this just be an aggressive acquisition push by The Brautigan Library, the library of unpublished manuscripts? I suppose there is a tax deduction for manuscript donations.

There’s been a little to-ing-and-fro-ing at the SHARP* listserv about what name we might have had for a mimeograph stencil partly created by hand. Not everything has to have a name does it? Of course some fairly obscure items are so blessed: for years I’ve been wondering why our language feels a need for the word “merkin” for instance. A mimeograph stencil partly created by hand is, I fear, only to be spoken of as a mimeograph stencil partly created by hand.

A patent for a mimeograph machine was granted to A. B. Dick Company of Chicago around 1887 based upon Edison’s earlier patent for a simpler pen-driven duplicator. Once upon a time if you worked in an office you would have been familiar with the mimeograph machine, sometimes called a Roneo, or Gestetner. If the boss wanted to tell everyone something, a typist would type the news onto a mimeograph stencil, having raised the typewriter ribbon out of the way. This would remove the waxy stencil coating and expose the permeable fabric carrier layer beneath. The secretary would then run off a copy for everyone by putting the cut stencil through the mimeograph printer where ink, often strangely purple, would be squeezed through the letter outlines to create multiple copies. Diagrams could theoretically be added by hand using a stylus, and even a signature — though in my experience signatures were not appended — once he’d dictated it the boss no doubt washed his hands of the whole potentially messy thing. According to Britannica up to 5,000 copies could be run off from a single stencil, though the more copies you ran the more likely it was that the counters of lower-case a, b, d, e etc. would fill in as the stencil edges deteriorated.

A related duplication method was the spirit duplicator (e.g. Ditto). This didn’t involve a separate ink: the master consisted of a double sheet, the first of which was typed on which removed the waxy ink coating on the second sheet and transferred it to the back of the first sheet by the keystroke’s pressure. It’s a bit like putting a carbon paper into a typewriter back-to-front. The second sheet would then be taken off and the back of the first sheet, carrying the waxy reversed image, would be used to run off duplicate copies by placing clean sheets of paper against it and applying pressure. They usually produced a purple image, and had of course a fairly limited life.

I recently discovered half of a mimeograph memo about 1968 vacation days. (Maybe it’s a sprit master job, though I think their image tended to fade.) This little memo lives in my 3-volume War and Peace where for forty plus years it has been serving as a bookmark. JLL was Jimmy Laidler, and WS Bill Starling, Bentley House Office Manager and Warehouse Manager respectively. Looks like I was getting my birthday off that year!

See also Hectograph for a closely related process.


* Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing.

The Economist brings the news that IKEA have decided to stop distributing their printed catalog. They used to distribute 200 million copies of their book in 32 languages. A nice print order! They’ve been printing a catalog for seventy years but will now rely on online services, though their website does offer a printed copy to those who request one, so clearly some printing will be done. Their online service is pretty good — see the video at my 2014 post Alternative reality is coming closer.

Other retailers abandoning print include Argos whose catalog, a staple of Christmas, was once, The Economist tells us “Europe’s most widely printed publication, vying with the Bible for the title of most-read book in Britain.”

The grand-daddy of them all, the Sears catalog, was however last printed in 1993.

Sears Roebuck helped make the wild west a lot less wild, capitalizing on the growth of the railroad network and the establishment of rural free delivery of mail. Sears mailed their first printed adverts in 1888 when still named The R. W. Sears Watch Company. Their first general catalog dates from 1894. The company provides an exhaustive record at its archive. The Economist‘s 1843 magazine has recently published an article (this may be paywalled) about Sears and their catalog which reveals that Sears even sold a build-your-own house kit, which they assured customers could be assembled in less than 90 days! Eventually they offered 447 different models. IKEA take note.

The first phone book, that other relic of gigantism in print, was in fact a single sheet issued in 1878 listing the numbers of the 50 phone suscribers in New Haven, CT.. The first general phone directory was published in Britain in 1880. The Reuben H. Donnelley Company claims to have printed the first classified directory (yellow pages) in Chicago in 1896. The good times have however ceased to roll, as have the presses feeding them. Verizon suspended delivery of phone books in New York City in 2016, and most other cities have banned them now. Nobody’s noticed — cell phone numbers weren’t included.

The telephone directory has left its mark on our industry. In 1938 AT&T commissioned a new typeface, Bell Gothic, designed for legibility in small sizes when printed on newsprint. Perhaps not the most elegant typeface available, but available it is. Bell Gothic was replaced in 1978 by Bell Centennial, designed by Matthew Carter. The design increased the x-height of lowercase characters, slightly condensed the character width, and gave many characters larger bowls, so it would perform even better in directories.

Coronavirus has accelerated several trends which were already under way. These changes to online search should all free up a bit of print capacity — or to put it another way, will no doubt lead to a number of bankruptcies in the printing industry.

Well it’s obvious that print-on-demand would be great for an organization like the Royal Opera House, isn’t it? They must have just bought a new color digital press, and are offering to print you up, one-off, your own copy of a selection of forty posters from their collection. Find out about it here.

One of the rallying cries in their email introducing the service is that ordering a print will support local craftsmen. Unfortunately these craftsmen are not the cunning printers though, they’re the guys in Sussex who’ll be making the frame for you. But that’s fine too.

You need to act quickly though if you want to send a poster to one of your friends for Christmas. For recipients in Britain orders need to be received by this Sunday, 13 December. Elsewhere in the world you’re already too late. Sorry.

Lost in the lumber room of the past is the shooting stick someone gave me for my twenty-first birthday. (Why on earth?) I was never much of a hunting and shooting chap — the target tended to be long gone before I’d got the safety catch off, plus if you were successful you had a poor little dead or, worse, dying animal to deal with. As a schoolboy however I was something of a ·303 rifle marksman: not brilliant but steady and reliable. A shooting team has eight members and I would usually go last (as below) because I didn’t care about the pressure of knowing what score we needed to get to win.

Ashburton Shield team 1958 or 1959. Click on the photo and you can actually read the scores.

The worst thing about it all was that you needed to dress up in military garb: never my favorite look. But as it all took place in summer, it was a better option that playing cricket: and you got to go in a bus down to Bisley, south of London once a year for the Ashburton competition between all public (private boys’) schools.

I doubt if I ever used that shooting stick, though now that I’m a bit older I recognize it as a pretty good invention.

A shooting stick is a sort of cumbersome walking stick which when you get tired you can unfold to create a little seat so you can take a breather. It seems however that in today’s America the term refers principally to a sort of portable tripod or bipod on which you can rest your gun while drawing your bead. The shooting stick I’m referring to would not be any help in aiming your gun: unless getting your breath back while taking a rest qualifies. You’ve got to really want that rest though because carrying a shooting stick tends to be less than convenient. Unsurprisingly it’s heavier than an ordinary walking stick, as well as a bit hard to grip and swing back and forth. At the bottom there’s a little flip-up metal shield which is designed to prevent your burying yourself further and further into the mud when you relax your backside onto the sling seat. I bet they were first designed with the idea that your manservant would lug your shooting stick across the hills for you.

A printer’s shooting stick is however a horse of a different color.

These shooting sticks “were originally a piece of hardwood, such as hickory, with a notch at one end. This notch was engaged against the end of a quoin or sidestick, and the shooting stick was tapped with the hammer or mallet. This forced one wedge tighter against another to lock up type inside the chase. In later years shooting sticks were made of iron or steel, and remained in use until the development of mechanical, or screw-tightening quoins in the late nineteenth century.” This is from Letterpress commons.

Patent model. Shooting sticks, Blackwell, patent no. 107154. 1996.0062.03.

Here is the Patent Office’s model of a metal printer’s shooting stick, dating from around 1870. It looks like it was provided with some armament: almost tomahawk-like. See Patent Models Graphic Arts for more.

A comment by Gibson Square, the author of Cabbie Blog, on my recent post on quoins reminds me of an important fact. He reports that at his first job the printer was using an 1820 Albion press, and that Gibson Square’s responsibilities as an apprentice included hammering wooden quoins into place with a mallet.  We all, myself included, often forget that just because there may be a better way of doing something doesn’t mean that everybody is going to be doing things in that new way. Using a mallet to hammer a wooden quoin into position, with or without the aid of a shooting stick, may be slightly less efficient that having metal quoins — but so what? If you can do the job without spending any time and money buying the “new” version, why should you? Good enough is, surprise, surprise, good enough.