De Vinne, Theodore Low 1828-1914

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DE VINNE, Theodore Low 1828-1914

PERSONAL: Born December 25, 1828 in Stamford, CT; died February 16, 1914; son of Daniel (a Methodist circuit rider) and Joanna Augusta Low De Vinne; married Grace (Brockbank). Education: Attended public schools in Catskill, Amenia, and White Plains, NY.

CAREER: Francis Hart & Company, New York, NY, printer and partner; De Vinne Press, founder; book collector.

MEMBER: United Typothetae of America (former president), Typothetae of the City of New York (former secretary).

AWARDS, HONORS: Gold Special Medal of Award, American Institute of Graphic Arts, 1908; honorary degrees from Columbia and Yale universities, 1911.


The Profits of Book Composition, Associated Employing Printers of New York (New York, NY), 1864.

The Printers' Price List: A Manual for the Use of Clerks and Book-keepers in Job Printing Offices, Hart (New York, NY), 1869, enlarged edition, 1871.

The State of the Trade: Observations on Eight Hours and Higher Prices, Suggested by Recent Conferences between the New-York Typographical Union and the Employing Book and Job Printers of That City, Hart (New York, NY), 1872.

The Invention of Printing: A Collection of Facts and Opinions Descriptive of Early Prints and Playing Cards, the Block-Books of the Fifteenth Century, the Legend of Lourens Janszoon Coster of Haarlem, and the Work of John Gutenberg and His Associates, Hart (New York, NY), 1876.

Historic Printing Types: A Lecture Read before the Grolier Club of New York, January 25, 1885, with Additions and New Illustrations, Grolier Club (New York, NY), 1886.

Christopher Plantin and the Plantin-Moretus Museum at Antwerp, Grolier Club (New York, NY), 1888.

The Roman and Italic Printing Types in the Printing House of Theodore L. De Vinne & Co., De Vinne Press (New York, NY), 1891.

The Practice of Typography: A Treatise on the Processes of Type-Making, the Point System, the Names, Sizes, Styles, and Prices of Plain Printing Types, Century (New York, NY), 1900.

The Practice of Typography: Correct Composition; A Treatise on Spelling, Abbreviations, the Compounding and Division of Words, the Proper Use of Figures and Numerals, Italic and Capital Letters, Notes, etc., with Observations on Punctuation and Proof-Reading, Century (New York, NY, 1901).

Title-Pages as Seen by a Printer, with Numerous Illustrations in Facsimile and Some Observations on the Early and Recent Printing of Books, Grolier Club (New York, NY), 1901, enlarged as The Practice of Typography: A Treatise on Title-Pages, with Numerous Illustrations in Facsimile, and Some Observations on the Early and Recent Printing of Books, Century (New York, NY), 1902.

The Practice of Typography: Modern Methods of Book Composition; a Treatise on Type-Setting by Hand and by Machine, and on the Proper Arrangement and Imposition of Pages, Century (New York, NY), 1904.

Notable Printers of Italy during the Fifteenth Century, Illustrated with Facsimiles from Early Editions and with Remarks on Early and Recent Printing, Grolier Club (New York, NY), 1910.

Printing in the Nineteenth Century, Lead Mould Electrotype Foundry (New York, NY), 1924.


(Author of preface) A Decree of Star Chamber concerning Printing, Grolier Club (New York, NY), 1884.

(Author of preface) Joseph Moxon, Moxon's Mechanick Exercises; or, The Doctrine of Handy-Works Applied to the Art of Printing, 2 volumes, Typothetae of the City of New York (New York, NY), 1896.

Contributor to periodical publications, including Printer, Printers' Circular, Scribner's Monthly, Century, Bookbuyer, and Inland Printer.

SIDELIGHTS: Theodore Low De Vinne was one of America's most important printers, not just for his workmanship and innovations, but also for his contributions as historian and book collector. One of the first to credit Johannes Gutenberg for the invention of Western printing, he collected many books on Americana, the history of printing, and typographical reference. When one of his collections sold in 1920, Yale University rare books librarian Henrietta Bartless described it as "the finest library on the history of printing which has ever been offered for sale in this country." As a type designer De Vinne determined the book-composition styles of his day, welcomed new printing technology, and invented many of his own methods. He helped found the Grolier Club and wrote extensively on scholarly and popular topics. Michael Koenig, in Dictionary of Literary Biography, wrote that "All the while he was a successful businessman and a practicing printer; in the latter capacity he was frequently called the greatest of his age."

De Vinne, born on Christmas Day, 1828, was one of eight children. His father, Daniel, a Methodist circuit rider, abolitionist, and author of The Methodist Episcopal Church and Slavery and The Irish Primitive Church, emigrated from Ireland. His ancestors had emigrated from Holland to Ireland in the sixteenth century to escape religious persecution. Theodore De Vinne got his early education in public schools in Catskill, Amenia, and White Plains, New York. At age fourteen he began an apprenticeship with the Newburgh, New York, Gazette's printer. In 1850 he married Grace Brockbank and found work as a journeyman compositor for Francis Hart in New York City. Hart made him a partner with one-third ownership of the firm in 1858, renaming it Francis Hart & Company.

Once established as a printer, De Vinne helped organize his trade. In 1865 a group of printers with whom De Vinne had been meeting formally organized as the Typothetae of the City of New York. De Vinne was the group's secretary, and was president of the Typothetae of America when it began in 1887. De Vinne helped his fellow printers set realistic prices when he produced The Printers' Price List: A Manual for the Use of Clerks and Book-keepers in Job Printing. Meanwhile, Francis Hart & Company became the printer for Scribner and Company's St. Nicholas, the nation's foremost children's magazine at that time. Scribner and Company, pleased with the printing quality, awarded Francis Hart the printing of Scribner's Monthly in 1876. The magazine was renamed Century in 1881, and according to Koenig, "achieved a penetration … and an importance that has never been equaled by any other quality American magazine." Frank Luther Mott called Century the best-printed magazine in the world in his History of American Magazines (1938-1968). After Hart died in 1883, De Vinne purchased the balance of the firm and renamed it the De Vinne Press. He soon gained a reputation as the prime source for quality printing and at the firm's peak employed more than three hundred people in an attractive seven-storey building designed by George Fletcher Babb.

De Vinne invented two type fonts, the Century family and the Renner. De Vinne and Linn Boyd Benton created the Century family specifically for Century in 1896, and it consistently rated highly readable in legibility studies. According to Koenig, the Century types are also important because "they were the first to introduce the notion of a proportional family of types. That is, the larger type sizes were made proportionate to the size used in books and were designed to be used with it." De Vinne and Henry Brehmer designed the Renner typeface in 1898. Inspired by a typeface invented by Venetian printer Franz Renner in 1472, and by William Morris's work at England's Kelmscott Press, the design inspired De Vinne's foreman, Mark Harvey Liddell, to declare: "We have secured the prime beauty of early printing without having to resort to medieval mans revisions, and so far we have beaten William Morris at his best—no borders, no black illegible type, no crowding of matter, no sacrificing of sense to aesthetic demands—all clear straight legible printing—single, direct and forceful." The typeface called De Vinne, which he did not invent, was named in his honor. De Vinne had functional tastes; his slogan was legibility first, decoration last.

De Vinne readily adapted to advances in printing methods. Francis Hart & Company had the reputation as the first printing firm to use dry paper and a cylinder press for quality work. De Vinne invented the use of coated paper for printing woodcuts in 1875 and experimented with coated paper and photoengraving. He also collaborated with the Hoe brothers in designing printing presses. In 1891 he was among the first printers to use the Linotype machine for quality bookwork. In the early twentieth century De Vinne was among the first to experiment with color printing, and De Vinne Press won the gold Special Medal of Award of the American Institute of Graphic Arts in 1908 for its work in four-color-process printing.

In the mid-nineteenth century a debate was raging among international historians and printers over who invented modern printing. De Vinne decided "the invention of printing," must be defined before identifying its inventor. In his book The Invention of Printing, he narrowed this to the invention of the type mold, which enabled the mass production of interchangeable pieces of type. Once he determined this, he documented evidence pointing to Gutenberg as the inventor of the type mold—and printing as we know it. De Vinne authored other important books and lectures on this history, and contributed articles to general-interest periodicals—especially Scribner's Monthly and Century—and to historical books, compilations, and trade publications. With articles such as "Medieval Printing," "Giambatista Bodoni," and "William Caxton," he sought to instill continuity and identity among the members of his trade.

In researching the invention of printing, De Vinne amassed a large collection of books on its history. He also collected books on Americana. Among the collection are Joseph Moxon's Moxon's Mechanick Exercises, Theodor Goebel's Friedrich Koenig und die Erfindung der Schellpresse, Claude Dablon's Relation de ce qui s'est passé de plus remarquable aux missions des pères de la compagnie de Jésus en la nouvelle France, and Williams Hubbard's A Narrative of the Troubles with the Indians in New England. When De Vinne died in 1914, the collection was grouped into three categories: his typographical library maintained at the De Vinne Press, his American history books, and his printing history books. The typographical library went to Columbia University's library and the Newberry Library of Chicago acquired most of the printing history books.

De Vinne's accomplishments as an entrepreneur, trade organizer, influential arbiter of typographical taste, type designer, and printer have yet to be matched. He received honorary degrees from Columbia and Yale universities. As he told the Yale Club of New York, he gave "the best part of my life to the making of books that have been sold and read and are not rated as bits of typographic bric-a-brac."



Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia of American Literature, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1991.

Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, England), 1995.

Catalogue of Work of the De Vinne Press, Exhibited at the Grolier Club, Grolier Club (New York, NY), 1929.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 187: American Book Collectors and Bibliographers, Second Series, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.

Hopkins, Frank, The De Vinne and Marion Presses, Columbia Club (Meriden, CT), 1936.

Library of the Late Theodore Low De Vinne … The Anderson Galleries … New York, Sale No. 1455, January 12-16, 1920, D. Taylor (New York, NY), 1920.

Mott, Frank Luther, A History of American Magazines, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1938-1968.

Oxford Companion to American Literature, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1995.

Rollins, Carl Purington, Theodore Low De Vinne, Typophiles (New York, NY), 1968.

Selections from the Fine Private Library of Mr. Theodore Low De Vinne, Scott & O'Shaugnessy (New York, NY), 1919.

Theodore Low De Vinne, Printer, De Vinne Press (New York, NY), 1915.


Library Quarterly, January, 1971.

Printing History, Volume 8, 1986; Volume 11, 1989.

Scientific American, November 14, 1903.

Signature, New Series Volume 10, 1950.*

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De Vinne, Theodore Low 1828-1914

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