Archives for category: Letterpress

I guess a computer is really more complicated than a Linotype machine, but it’s all inside that black box. It’s like magic: you don’t see any action. With the heavy metal machinery we used to use to make things, you’d see (and hear, and smell, and feel) lots of stuff happening. It is just amazing to get great chunks of metal, working at high temperatures and relatively high speeds, click-clacking and bang-thumping away, and despite their heavy steel structure, creating precise little things regularly, repeatedly, and reliably. Designing a machine with almost ten thousand moving parts is amazing enough: getting it to work every morning at the hands of a wage-earner, and getting it to keep on working for years and years requires dedication and love. No wonder the compositors were the aristocracy of labor.

The Museum of Printing has a series of ten videos about the Linotype machine. These are for the enthusiast — fourteen minutes on lubricating an obsolete machine is not everyone’s choice of pastime — but if you need to know, here is Linotype Legacy. If you just watch one, try the first which shows you what you’d have to do every morning to get the machine ready to go.

See also Linotype.

Almost looks like his hat’s made of type metal

Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg was born in Mainz some time between 1394 and 1404. In the 1890s the city of Mainz declared his official birthdate to be 24 June, 1400.

He didn’t invent printing. He didn’t invent the printing press. The closest thing to an invention that Johannes Gutenberg made was movable metal type: but even that had precedent in Asian printing, about which Gutenberg was however presumably ignorant. His father was a goldsmith and coin maker, and there are parallels between metal working and hot metal printing which seem to have worked on the mind of the youth. Obviously metal working led to a facility with the use of metals, including engraving copper plates. Casting coins and medals in moulds, and obviously the techniques involved in cutting the moulds themselves were essential skills in hot metal type manufacture. Presses were already known by then, used for printing wood blocks, but mainly evolved from wooden wine presses.

What Gutenberg really was was a businessman who saw an opportunity to develop some pre-existing technologies, and pushed hard, putting his money (and others’) where his mouth was. He seems to have been quite willing to take a flutter: one instance is the abortive pilgrimage to Aachen on 1439. Gutenberg manufactured thousands of little mirrors which were advertised as having the power to gather in divine rays. These were to be sold to souvenir-happy pilgrims. His inventory became useless when the plague (or maybe it was floods) caused to cancellation of Aachen’s ceremonies.

Between 1448 and 1450 Gutenberg established a printing operation in Mainz. Investors included Arnold Geldhus, his brother-in-law, as well as Johann Fust and his son-in-law, Peter Schöffer. Fust invested 800 gulden to get the operation going, and then put in a further 800 gulden to fund the printing of the Bible which started in 1452. Prior to the Bible project they were printing indulgences and Latin grammars. The first work surviving from the press is a German poem.

The BBC programme, The Forum, gives a straightforward introduction to Gutenberg’s entrepreneurial initiative. This programme dates from November 2020, and breaks in the middle for a news update, which, rather eerily, turns out to be the news from back then (2020, not 1452).

The New York Times Book Review recently noticed this poem, which they had originally published in their issue of 31 October, 1915. My interest, unlike theirs, in not in the quality of the verse but in its printing.

If you click on the picture you can enlarge it. Luckily the second column is in better focus in my picture. The sixth line of that column, “Gorges, precipices, and heights” and the fifth to last line “Giving suck to a child” are squashed vertically so that they look smaller than the other lines. Without changing font (which nobody would waste time doing) this would seem impossible in hot metal setting. Such compression of lines is occasionally an artifact of digital scanning — you can almost think of it as the paper slipping as it’s fed through the scanner. Could one imagine a similar slippage in the plate-making process? But the squashed lines are not to be found in the left hand column too, which might tend to suggest that the original may have been set in one column. But that’s not correct either, because in this reproduction they show the whole thing in situ with the surrounding material partially shown. How then could this happen? Could they have printed it in one column, with a plate-making flaw, then cut the plate apart and re-composed the page as double column? Sounds unlikely if not impossible.

Here a comp (compositor) is making up one of the sports pages from the 10 September 1942 issue of The New York Times. It looks like he’s copy-fitting a new group of half lines which have been reset (tighter) to fit the space available. Could be the baseball scores. Note that he’s working upside down. The type reads backwards too of course, so that umpire at the top is being viewed from the first base side of home plate. The Yankees, if that’s who it is, were in Baltimore on the 9th — this may be one of the 9 unanswered runs they failed to prevent.

The composing room was the hinge on which the whole enterprise turned. Here the words, having been keyed and set on the Linotypes in the keyboarding department, were turned into pages of type, ready to go for stereo-making. Clearly they had to be told about changes in house style so they could catch errors, and here the Composing Room Foreman has stuck recent (nicely typeset) changes in a prominent location.

These photos, along with many other fascinating images, come from the Library of Congress via a post from Mashable. Marjory Collins made the photographs for The Office of War Information. The New York Times at that time was still located at One Times Square with an annex on 43rd Street. See College Point presses for their new printing plant.

For a video on the Times‘ change-over to film setting from Linotype, see The Times goes cold.

Thanks to Nathan Barr for the link to Mashable‘s photos.

London Remembers added this blue plaque* to their collection of lost memorials as it had been left off the front of 22-23 Chiswell Street after the redesign of the entranceway. (Link via a tweet from Typographica.) The Caslon Letter Foundry had operated there from 1734 till 1936. Turns out that a couple of months later the plaque reappeared — so pilgrimages can resume. Spitalfields Life has an article about the foundry with a large gallery of photos. There’s a link there to a piece about Caslon which also has lots of illustrations.

William Caslon is, of course, remembered as the designer of the eponymous typeface.He needs however to be referred to as William I, as he came out of Halesowen to found a type founding dynasty in London. He started out as an apprentice with the Worshipful Company of Loriners in 1706. Loriners, often lorimers, make the metal parts for horse bridles. Caslon allegedly focussed on engraving metal pieces, especially gun locks, a task which also seems to have fallen to the loriner. Around 1720 the talented young man was set up as a type founder by John Watts, William Bower, and A. N. Other. Good timing. In 1722 Caslon was commissioned by SPCK (the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge, the third oldest English publisher after CUP and OUP) to cut an Arabic typeface. SPCK liked it, but even more did people like the Roman letter used at the bottom of the specimen sheet to identify the type founder. Printer Samuel Palmer got Caslon to cut an entire Roman alphabet, and so successful did Caslon’s Pica Roman become that very quickly England was transformed from an importer of type into an exporter. The face gained a world-wide following: The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were both set in Caslon type.

Caslon came to be the “British” typeface. It’s an old-style face rather than transitional like the almost contemporary Baskerville (well, fifty years later actually), and it took off from older Dutch designs, tidying them up and generating a feeling of straightforward solidity and geometrical balance. In weird slap-in-the-face mode the first biography of James Baskerville was printed at Cambridge University Press in 1907 using Caslon’s type. And this despite the fact that Baskerville’s original punches and matrices were owned by CUP. Into the nineteenth century Caslon enjoyed its continuing popularity, but gradually fell out of favor in time to be resuscitated in the twentieth century type renaissance in Britain.

Here’s a type specimen which includes down the right hand side Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic, Gothic, Armenian, Ethiopian, Samaritan and Coptic, and at the bottom, Saxon. Keep clicking on it if you want to get into it.


*These blue plaques are quite widespread across London — there are apparently more than 950 of them. They usually note the fact that famous person X lived here. The scheme started in 1866 and is now administered by English Heritage.

The tympan is part of a hand press. It is a frame, usually covered with a taut parchment, onto which a sheet of paper is placed so that it can be folded down to bring the paper into contact with the inked forme of type. The paper on the tympan is usually protected by a frisket.

In this picture, after the frisket and tympan have been folded together and then down on top of the type, the press bed is moved to the left under the platen which the operator, by pulling on the lever, forces down onto tympan + paper + frisket + forme, causing the ink to transfer from the type onto the paper with a good clean impression. (Goldilocks as press operator — not too much pressure; not too little; just the right amount.) Turn that crank at the bottom the other way to bring the print bed back to the position shown in the picture, raise the frisket, remove the printed sheet, and start once more from the top.

The parchment cover on the tympan relates the word to the drum (tympanum is Latin for drum — remember the tympani, simply the plural).

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.

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: