Archives for category: Book printing

The University of Iowa has produced a dynamic map showing the spread of printing across Europe between 1450 and 1500. 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.

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.


It must have been a word everyone knew in 1933 when the song “Easter Parade” featured in “As Thousands Cheer” on Broadway. The song is of course better known from the eponymous 1948 film with Fred Astaire and Judy Garland.

The photographers — will snap us
And you’ll find that you’re
In the rotogravure.


Since 1933, partly as a result of advances in web-fed offset, newspaper color supplements and magazines have moved away from gravure printing. The excellence of the color reproduction turns out (for publishers) not to be worth the cost of engraving four gravure cylinders with pits to hold the cyan, magenta, yellow and black inks. As you can see from the illustration above, the ink covers the entire cylinder which then rotates and is cleaned off by the doctor blade* which leaves ink only in the pits — the deeper the pit the more ink — and none on the surface, before traveling on to meet the paper. See the section on Intaglio printing in my earlier post Printing methods, where there’s a video of hand printing by intaglio.

Photo: AJS Labels

In ABC for book collectors John Carter forthrightly describes gravure as “The finest of reproductive printing processes” Gravure “evolved in the second half of the 19th century. It involved the creation of an intaglio ground on a copper plate, either by a combination of hand-etching and engraving, or the similar treatment of an image projected on to the late photographically (photogravure). The process was mechanised with copper-faced cylinders instead of plates in the 20th century. To a publisher the presence of gravure plates was a mark of distinction, to be commercially advertised.”

I had assumed the “roto” part of the name referred to the fact that the gravure plate is curved around a roller, but the Oxford English Dictionary says the word probably was picked up from the name of the Rotogravur Deutsche Tiefdruck GmbH (Berlin), said to be derived from the names of the two companies out of which it was formed in 1911: Rotophot GmbH (Berlin) and Deutsche Photogravur AG (Siegburg).

Just to knock my roller idea on the head they say: “The form rotagravure (compare quot. 1919 at sense 1) reflects a reinterpretation of the first element of the word as showing classical Latin rota wheel, roller (see rota n.).” I still bet that, whatever the Latin tells us, RotoPhot got its name from these rollers. Modern printers, in contrast to their 15th century predecessors, are not required to be Latinists.

The process of printing etchings from rotating cylinders was developed by the Austrian-Czech artist and printer K. Klič in Lancaster in the 1890s (originally for printing textiles), but he did not patent his invention, and apparently did not use the word. A related process (invented by E. Mertens) was later popularized by the German company discussed above, but Klič is still frequently credited with the invention of rotogravure.

Rotogravure (or any kind of gravure) is far too expensive to be used for book and publications nowadays. It is now confined to printing labels for cans of vegetables: where color consistency from one can to another is absolutely vital, and the print runs are immense.


* Doctor blade may originate with dux, leader (via ductor) rather than with doctor, teacher.

I was aware of George Bernard Shaw’s desire to rationalize English spelling (famously his complaint that fish could be spelled ghote without phonetic alteration), but I didn’t know that he had sponsored the creation of a new featural alphabet. His requirements were that it contain at least 40 letters; be as “phonetic” as possible (that is, letters should have a 1:1 correspondence to phonemes); and be distinct from the Latin alphabet to avoid the impression that new spellings were simply “misspellings”. The alphabet was actually created after his death by Ronald Kingsley Read.


This means ghote be damned, fish would look like this: 


It turns out that  Penguin published a version of Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion in this script in 1962. This parallel edition was paid for by the Shaw Trust, but ended up being the only book to be thus sponsored because Shaw’s will was then contested.

I like the little price sticker on this image of the cover.

Atlas Obscura tells the story of Kevin Bradley’s cross-country haul to set up his Church of Type in Santa Monica. With the International Printing Museum there too LA looks like a place the typophile has to visit.

And this might just be the moment: The Great Los Angeles Wayzgoose is taking place from July 20th to 23rd. It is being hosted by the International Printing Museum in Carson. “The presentations will also have a special focus on the unique Los Angeles letterpress scene, from the bold and colorful Kevin Bradley and his Church of Type in Santa Monica, to Rebecca Chamlee, Otis College Lab Press, Art Center in Pasadena, The Bieler Press, and Kitty Maryatt of the Scripps College Press. Attendees will be encouraged to print, cast, create, and be inspired with the Printing Museum collections.” Roll up, roll up!

We all know what this means to us nowadays: an old book which has been photographed and the negatives from these photos used as original copy for an edition printed by offset lithography.

Leaf 18 from James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps’s 1857 photographic facsimile of The famous victories of Henry the fifth. London, imprinted by Barnard Alsop, and are to be sold by Tymothie Barlow … 1617. Folger PR2411 .F3 1857 copy 2.

But it wasn’t always thus. After the invention of photography but before the full development of lithography there were few options. Here, from The Folger Library’s blog, The Collation, is an account of an 1857 photographic facsimile of The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth. The label, photographic facsimile is literal: each page is a photographic salted paper print made from a negative. In 1857 they would all look fine, but the ten copies only which were made by James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps (who annotates each copy to the effect that the negatives have been destroyed) have all faded to greater or lesser extent — as photographs will of course tend to do as the chemicals involved keep on working.

This copy of The Mill on the Floss, which cost me 2/9 (about 27 pence in today’s money, but worth a good bit more back in the sixties when I must have bought it second-hand in Cambridge) was originally published and printed by William Blackwood and Sons in Edinburgh at some time late in the 19th century. At that time publishers often didn’t bother to put any dates in their books, especially their cheaper editions; and this carries none. It promotes itself as “The Stereotype Edition” on its title page: I wonder what that said to the potential book buyer. Probably that it was an “affordable” edition. The series title page features a little drawing of Dorlecote Mill and has a totally spurious tissue overlay which looks like it’s there to protect said drawing. Spurious, because the illustration is in no need of protection, being as likely to be damaged as any of the rest of the type on that page, or any other, which was printed by letterpress from the advertised stereo plates. The tissue’s there to impress the potential buyer, who’s meant to think that that vignette of the mill was separately printed as a copperplate engraving, and is therefore delicate. The book also has six full page line illustrations (rather clunky ones) printed so as to look as if they were tipped in plates, i.e. with blank back, and not included in the book’s pagination.

The series list gives pricing for the pukka Cabinet Edition where each volume will cost you 5/-. (No discount if you bought all 24 volumes for £6 though.) I bet you got even more tissue overlays there. My book looks like it’s Crown Octavo too (it’s 5″ x 7⅜”) so they may have used the same paper on both editions. It’s stood the test of time pretty well.

A stereotype is a solid plate of type metal made from a mould of the original type. (It can also be referred to as a cliché.) One of the tell-tale signs of a stereo is its tendency to get damaged after repeated use. On the page shown below you can see along the left hand margin evidence of the plate’s having been slightly bashed, which has compressed the “h”, “w”, “c” and lower down the “d” and “a”.

You can see the hefty impression the stereo could be subjected to in the indentations on the back of the sheet. It’s called letterpress printing for a reason!

Stereotypes would be made for books which the publisher expected to print often and in longer runs. Standing type was an expense as well as being constantly at risk of pi-ing — dropping down into a heap of individual sorts. Until the development of lithography enabled publishers to print whatever they wanted whenever they wanted, the stereotype provided a means of evading resetting every time you ran out of stock.

See also Flong, a step on the way to making a stereotype.

It’s an odd book that Mill on the Floss. I remember the first time I read it wondering if I’d failed to notice that there was a second volume. It finishes so abruptly. It’s almost as if the author got fed up; maybe she’d missed her delivery deadline. Alternatively I image them shouting up “Hurry up, Mary Anne. Come on down to dinner.” and she saying to herself: “OK, OK. Let’s just drown ’em and get it done with. And then off downstairs for that mutton chop and tomato sauce”.

Anna Atkins, Papaver rhoeas, 1845

Cyanotype is one of three photographic contact printing methods that rely on the photo-reduction of ferric ions. (The argentotype or van Dyke and the platinum/palladium processes are the other two.*) Richard Benson’s The Printed Picture tells us that cyanotype is how the blueprint is referred to in fancy circles. The process exploits the ability of ferric iron compounds to become ferrous when exposed to high levels of light. Prussian blue was the material originally used. Prints can be made on paper or fabrics (though not synthetic fabrics). You coat the material to be printed (the coating looks pale yellowy green), and hang it up to dry in the dark. Lay on top of it the object to be reproduced and expose the lot to bright light for up to 15 minutes, and there you are. We book-making folks are familiar with the process (or at least the tangible results of the process) in the blues which we often check just before a book is printed. Architectural and engineering drawings used to be reproduced by the same process, and thus our word blueprint has come to mean a planning outline.

If you fancy trying your hand at cyanotype Jerry’s Artarama will sell you jars of Jacquard’s potassium ferricyanide and ferric ammonium citrate which when combined will set up the process. All you need to do is treat your substrate (if you didn’t buy pretreated sheets from them) and place on top of it any object which will cast a shadow, leave it in the sun for 3 to 15 minutes, and there’s your image. Among the shadow-casting objects can of course be a negative, whether of a photograph or a page of type. A film positive will work too. A negative will show the type or image blue and the background white, while a positive original will give the opposite result. (Book blues tend to be printed on a yellowish paper.) Most excitingly Artarama offers you self-portrait possibilities: “With Jacquard’s Cyanotype Pretreated Mural Fabric you can actually create a full-body print by laying [sic] on top of the mural fabric for the duration of exposure while not moving. The creative possibilities for Photographers, Mixed Media Artists, and Quilters are endless!”

It all does seem pretty straightforward, as this short video demonstrates:

If you do not see a video at this point, please click on the title of this post so that you can view it in your browser.

The invention of photography in 1839 provoked a lot of experimentation with the interaction of different chemicals with light, and Sir John Herschel came up with the formula for cyanotype in 1842. John George Children, who had been present at the Royal Society meeting when Henry Fox Talbot had first presented photography to the world, kept his daughter Anna Atkins (1799-1871) fully informed of developments. She had been drawing plants and seashells, and frustrated by the lack of illustrations in an 1841 book about algae, set to in 1843 to use Herschel’s process to create the necessary illustrations. The Guardian recounts her story, and tells us there’s an exhibition called New Realities at the Rijksmuseum running until 17 September, featuring Atkins’ work. Unfortunately their link takes you to the wrong show. This link will reveal the Rijksmuseum’s immense collection of Atkins’ work.

I had quietly assumed that cyanotype would be so named because of its blue color (cyan, derived from the Greek κύανος, dark blue, being the name for the blue ink in the CMYK process). But no: according to the Oxford English Dictionary it gets its name from the involvement of cyanide in the process. As their one supporting reference they quote Sir John Herschel from his original publication of the discovery in The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: “If a nomenclature of this kind be admitted . . . the whole class of processes in which cyanogen in its combinations with iron performs a leading part, and in which the resulting pictures are blue, may be designated by this epithet. The varieties of cyanotype processes seem to be innumerable.”


* These three printing methods are differentiated by color. Cyanotypes are blue, argentotypes are sepia brown (which is why they were named after van Dyke apparently), and palladium prints are browny grey. The color derives from the different effects of different light-sensitive chemicals used.




Not much seen anymore, a catchword is a word printed at the bottom right hand corner of a recto page just below the last line of text. It duplicates the word at the start of the next page, and was placed there to enable someone reading the book out loud to turn the page without any hesitation in the flow of their recitation. Now that we all read our books silently we don’t need to care about performance values.

This example comes from La congiura del conte Giovanni Luigi de Fieschi printed in the 1620s in Antwerp.

Folger 197208. From the Folger blog The Collation.















I wonder if catchwords are ever found in children’s books, the one category of book which does still regularly get read aloud. I wouldn’t be surprised if catchwords featured in lectern Bibles, but I can’t find a photograph confirming this, and it’s been almost 60 years since I last had to read the lesson.

The term can also refer to a heading in a text, a catch line. It can also substitute for catch phrase with the meaning of a briefly popular expression. In the sense of a desirable attainment, a “catch”, Sir Walter Scott refers in St Ronan’s Well to a catch-match “She made out her catch-match, and she was miserable”.