Archives for category: Letterpress

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.

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*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.

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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.

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* 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.

thorn

yogh

 

 

 

 

 

 

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:

 

Lewis Mitchell died earlier this year. He retired from M&H Type (part of the Arion Press set up in the Presidio, San Francisco) in 2014, the year before I visited the Press.

Type casting is the business end of hot metal typesetting: it’s the part where a squirt of molten metal is injected into a mould to create a sort, a piece of type. Mr Mitchell ran the machines that did this at the M&H foundry for many years.

Here Mr Mitchell walks you through the process in a City Exposed video:

If you don’t see a video here. please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.

As a reminder: there are three aspects of hot metal typesetting: keyboarding, creating the type, and arranging the type in the proper order. With hand setting you get lots of little bits of type which someone else has cast for you, and then select in the correct order the letters called for by the copy. Mechanization of hot metal typesetting took two broadly different directions. Monotype chose to keyboard the entire work onto a roll of punched tape, and then rerun it though a casting/setting machine which would output the entire job in individual characters arranged in lines of predetermined length. Linotype integrated things a bit more having the keyboard operator sit at the same machine that cast the letters into lines of characters, not individual letters. You could make a Monotype caster output all the same character, as no doubt Mr Mitchell often did at M&H as part of their foundry business supplying type fonts to other printer customers.

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.

Quoin is the same word as we find in the Shakespearian “coign of vantage”, just not using that spelling variant. It’s pronounced the same too, just like those pennies. It basically means an external corner of a building, a cornerstone. According to the Oxford English Dictionary those pieces of change clinking in your pocket got their name because the dies used to stamp metal coins were wedge-shaped.

By extension, quoin also means the double wedge shaped device used to lock up a forme ready for letterpress printing. Quoins are first noted in 1570, and Letterpress Commons tells us “For over 400 years quoins were short wooden wedges, used in multiples, that were driven with a ‘shooting stick’ and mallet against long tapered sticks called side and foot sticks.” Maybe these wooded wedges looked more cornerstone-like than the modern version.

Photo: Kyle van Horn

Here, from Letterpress Commons is an example, including the key used to twist the two sides apart. After the compositor had made up the forme, using wooden and metal “furniture” to fill the chase, you’d see him twisting his wrist rapidly around the edges. By turning the key he forced one ratcheted side of the quoin along against the other making the combination wider. Turn them both, top and side, and the type was locked in and unless you dropped it on the floor you could move it over to the pressroom.

Here from St Brigid Press is a little video making it all clear.

If you don’t see a video here please click on the heading of this post in order to view it in your browser.

We are so used to clip art nowadays that we still call it that even though there’s no longer any need to get out your scissors and clip anything at all. You just copy and paste clip art on your computer now. Clip art itself was anyway just part of an interim phase in print reproduction when people could get a little print job done on an offset press at their corner printshop. Before that there was an extra step in the process of reproducing a little picture.

With letterpress everything has to print from a raised surface, usually metal but also potentially wood, some synthetic substances and even rubber — think of that John Bull printing kit you had as a child or the date stamper in the office. Or notice next time you step in a puddle . . . the next step you take on the dry street will leave a letterpress impression: a rather evanescent one it’s true — for a more lasting impression stir up some mud while you’re in the puddle.

So, when almost everything had to be printed by letterpress, you needed to have access to a raised reversed image to receive the ink and transfer it to the paper. In order to be able to print a little picture you had to go to an engraver and create a block* (called a cut in USA). To get a block engraved cost money, so unless it was totally specific to a particular print job which was never going to reprint, you would carefully wrap each one in paper, label it carefully, ideally with a pull (proof) of the engraving on the outside, and put it into storage in case you ever needed something like that again.

Here’s a piece showing part of one printer’s collection. It is shown in two separate photos, though it is just one 12⅝” x 17¾” sheet. It was printed by The Quarto Press in Coupar Angus in Scotland. You can enlarge the pictures a bit by clicking on them.

I suspect that the main sheet is actually a reprint by offset from an earlier version which was done by letterpress from the original blocks. At the bottom of the main sheet you can see the claim that it was printed in an edition of 75 copies on a Vandercook press by John B. Easson at The Quarto Press in Feltham, quite a long way from Coupar Angus. At the top we are informed to job was done in October 1998. Their website tells us that Mr Easson returned his press from Middlesex to Scotland in 2004.

Behind the main sheet in the cellophane envelope holding it is this insert telling us about the job. Their first line is a little misleading, as it describes the original piece, not the version the purchaser is holding. The 75 copies of the original were apparently mostly supplied to The British Printing History Society,  so in order to be selling copies nowadays in Coupar Angus, Quarto (not the publisher of that name of course) would have had to have reprinted the piece. And I bet they did this by photographing the original piece and printing it by offset lithography.

Some of these ornaments are a bit odd: those aggressive policemen near the top are a bit worrying, though the ballroom dancers to their right seem to be quite unconcerned as do the three kids hiding among the flowers between them. The kid in the middle does appear to be toting a gun and this may be what’s upsetting the cops. And what are those teddy bears up to? The rugby players in the lower portion are rather good, as is the cow being milked with the real business tastefully masked by a milk bottle. And you’ve got to love the pig. Hard to imagine circumstances demanding the reuse of many of these: still some printer had paid for them and thought there might be another use for these each of these blocks, even if some may never have been unwrapped again.

The sheet draws the distinction between borders and ornaments. This seems relatively straightforward to my mind: a border would be available as a font for output by your typesetting machine along with the text, whereas an ornament would have to be created separately from artwork sent to the engraver, and integrated into the typeset page in the composing room. But Mr Easson is the printer and knows better than me.

I have discussed the flag blocks at the bottom right hand corner in a previous post.

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* The note at the top tells us that some of these type ornaments precede photo-engraving which is what is shown in the second of these videos. Die sinker describes the process of engraving a block by hand, though the photo-engraving video does show a lot of hand correction work.