Printing, History and Methods of

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Printing consists of processes for preparing identical copies of a written or pictorial text. Writing, which dates from the beginnings of civilization, records messages and enables them to survive over the course of chronological time; printing enables the duplicated messages to move through geographical space as literary and political statements. The first printing dates from East Asia, just after the birth of Christ. Processes for duplicating written texts were invented anew in Europe around 1450, where it both reflected and profoundly stimulated an emerging Western culture.

The history of printing is a history of artifacts and events but also of crafts. Four objects are involved: (1) printing surfaces, determined by what is to be copied, (2) ink, which consists of a chemical vehicle into which are mixed other substances for pigment and drying, (3) presses to transfer the ink from the printing surface to a reading surface, and (4) reading surfaces (usually paper) to receive the printing in order to produce the objects that are distributed through the activities of publishing.

Based primarily on the printing surfaces, one of four prototypical methods may be involved for the presswork: printing from raised surfaces, printing from incised surfaces, printing from flat surfaces, or printing from perforated surfaces. Printing from raised surfaces (i.e., letterpress, using either movable type or blocks of wood, metal, or later often linoleum) is essentially what Johannes Gutenberg invented around the 1440s. It subsequently dominated the printing world for more than four centuries. Printing from incised surfaces (i.e., intaglio engraving, often known as copperplate) was also developed during the 1400s but under circumstances that are less well known. Because it is not tied down to the linear text sequences prescribed by movable type, engraving came to be particularly well suited for maps, music, and works of arts. Its history was soon expanded to include not only direct incision with a stylus (or drypoint) but also chemical incisions of the printing surface (e.g., etching, aquatint). Capable of fine detail, intaglio engraving has become the appropriate medium for modern "security printing" (i.e., money and stock certificates). Printing based on flat surfaces (stones at first, from which came the name "lithography") was developed around 1800. Slow to be appreciated at first, the method has become the most widely used for commercial work, thanks to transfer processes that copy the printing surface on a different medium for inking and printing. Printing from surfaces that are perforated (e.g., silk-screening) allows ink to pass through the perforations. This is the least common of the four methods. All four have been developed and refined to fill particular niches in a decentralized world that has endless special demands, deadlines, and resources.

The Hand Press Era

Gutenberg, as elusive as he is celebrated, worked obsessively over several decades to produce the first printed books. His monumental achievement is represented in two different printings of the Bible (both completed probably soon after 1450) and in other short texts. Behind his work lay the physical invention and visual conception of the movable type that is reproduced on the printed page. His invention also entailed the improvement of presses capable of exact pressure across a large surface and the preparation of ink of the right consistency and color. Gutenberg understood that only if his works were visually convincing would they be commercially successful; their appearance needed to rival handwritten copies in both elegance and detail. The movable type involved complex activities in its own right. First, the fonts needed to be conceived in models that would reflect local tastes (in a time when there were many local manuscript styles), and they needed to be impressive and readable wherever copies were sent. Over time, punch cutters became part of the picture, as they filed and shaped the conception of the letters on the hard metal surfaces of punches and then impressed them into matrices by striking the punches into soft, heat-resistant metal. The matrices were next fitted into molds, into which molten lead was poured to create the individual sorts of type. Gutenberg not only worked out such complex procedures, but having done this, he went further and prepared separate fonts for each of his two Bibles, with several different shapes for a number of the letters.

In the surplus labor market of the day, workmen and apprentices who had been trained in the Gutenberg shop soon moved out of Mainz and took their skills to other nearby German cities, including Strasbourg, Bamberg, Augsburg, and Nuremberg. The printing press was soon seen in Switzerland (in Basel in 1467), Italy (in Subiaco outside of Rome in 1465 and in Venice in 1470, and France (in Paris in 1470). Before long, printing presses could be found across most of Europe. William Caxton, who was active in Bruges around 1475, set up his press in England in 1477. His imprints include several major English texts that survive in no earlier manuscript copy. Each of these printers needed to do exactly what Gutenberg had done. They needed to construct the press, design, punch, cast, and set the type, and prepare the ink. They then needed to locate sources for paper (or often vellum) and work the press efficiently to produce copies that were impressive in appearance. All of this could only be done after they had secured the necessary patronage or working capital. They also needed authors, texts, and editors, along with visions of market demands in the form of readers who were likely to want the books and be able to pay for them. Under such circumstances, the perfection and elegance of their books are especially astonishing.

In hindsight, the historical effect of their efforts seems obvious; printing clearly became a driving force in the course of Western civilization. The trends were also subtle and tied in to other historical events, however, so that the effect is hard to describe. The first texts were mostly religious works, as well as the Greek and Roman classics; political and practical writings, and original texts in general, came later. The first letters naturally reflected countless local preferences, but a standardization of the alphabet soon emerged, following national and religious predilections. Black-letter forms were to survive in Germany until as late as the 1940s, and elsewhere in conservative areas into the seventeenth century. Roman-letter forms, as first revived by the Italian humanists, were adopted in the Calvinist world. They soon came to dominate the rest of Europe, except in those Slavic areas where Cyrillic forms were to reflect the importance of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Printing obviously played a major role in the events through which Latin came to be supplanted by the vernacular languages. It helped to codify the orthography of the vernacular languages and, more subtly, their grammar. Serious readers—including legal scholars and scientists— could compare variant texts more easily when printed copies could be seen side by side. Thus, the bibliographical study of physical evidence itself was enriched, and with it, the causes of standardization and of scholarship thrived. Thanks to printed copies, political tracts were distributed more widely in the sixteenth century; in the relatively literate environment of Germany, Martin Luther was quick to call on printed sermons to foster his theological agenda.

Well established throughout Europe by the beginning of the sixteenth century, the press found its first major commercial center in Venice, where beginning in 1501, Aldus Manutius issued small, portable editions of the Greek and Roman classics, the latter in handsome italic type. Around 1520, Paris emerged as a home of scholarly printing, thanks to the Estienne family, which was also venerated for lexicography. By the 1530s, printers, particularly in Germany and France, found themselves caught up in the religious battles of the Reformation. London printers, torn by the religious instability of the early Tudor era, worked together through the Company of Stationers to negotiate an exclusive patent in 1557. In exchange for their promise of loyalty to the crown, they received ownership rights to the works they printed, in an arrangement that amounted to one of the earliest forms of copyright protection. In Antwerp, Christopher Plantin produced important scholarly books; he also served as the major distributor of movable type. The Plantin-Moretus Museum, which preserves the shop, is preeminent as a historical showcase for the equipment and activities of the early printer. It was during the sixteenth century, and significantly in connection with Plantin, that many of the classic type faces that are still in use today were introduced and promoted, including fonts designed by the Franco-Flemish type designers Claude Garamond, Robert Granjon, Hendrik van den Keere, Guillaume LeBé, and Pierre Haultin.

During the seventeenth century, the quality of printing declined because of the political censorship and shortage of materials that accompanied the acceleration of religious warfare in Europe. Pamphlets and broadsides, often with political overtones, are well represented in this period, and it was out of these that the modern newspaper began to emerge. Intaglio engraving came to be used for maps during the great era of exploration, as well as for other pictorial printing and, around 1700, for music. During this period, printers became increasingly separated from publishers, and eventually from booksellers as well. Printing remained a craft, learned through apprenticeship, although its secrets slowly began to be publicly known. For example, Joseph Moxon's Mechanick Exercises (1683) provided an invaluable description of the workings of the early printing shop.

Printing was introduced outside of Europe by the church (as part of Protestant or Jesuit missionary efforts and in order to provide service books) and by colonial governments (in order to publicize laws and official notices). The first Icelandic printing, in 1534, was sponsored by Jon Arneson, the last Catholic bishop prior to the Reformation. In the New World, liturgies and other books for use with the native populations were printed in Mexico as early as 1540. In the British colonies, Stephen Daye's press in Cambridge, Massachusetts (the first printing press in America), issued its Bay Psalm Book in 1640. The first books from India were printed by Portuguese Jesuits in 1675, while a British government press dates from 1675 and a Danish missionary press dates from 1712. A Dutch press in Indonesia dates from 1668, and one in Ceylon dates from 1719. Native presses were occasionally seen, one of the most provocative being the later Maori press and its readership in New Zealand.

Printing commerce stabilized in the eighteenth century. In England, modern copyright, vested primarily in the author, dates from the Queen Anne statute of 1710. The newspaper expanded in size, reflecting larger and more literate readerships, and there was a burgeoning output of pamphlets, many of them political. Because these publications challenged the national governments, they played a major role in the events that led up to the American and French revolutions. Other forms of books were first finding their markets and their readers. Printers were crucial to the advent of the earliest novels and to the specialty of children's books. Slowly, and most particularly in the Protestant nations, the printing press came to foster those elusive events through which nations with strong newspaper traditions also have strong library traditions.

In the United States, the press moved with the first settlers, across the Appalachians, prairies, and plains, following the rivers where there were no roads. Quickly, the new nation was blanketed with printing presses. The major publishing centers for books and popular reading materials were located initially on the East Coast, notably in Boston (where Isaiah Thomas first set up his shop), Philadelphia (where the firm of Matthew Carey was located), and New York (with the firm of Harper & Bro.). Local printers, in contrast, provided newspapers and pamphlets, along with state and regional notices and ephemera. From the ranks of the printers and their apprentices came such notable American writers as Benjamin Franklin, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, and William Dean Howells.

What is known of the production of the early presses around the world consists mainly of books, mostly because books were thought of as items that should be preserved. The extent and importance of printed ephemera can only be guessed at, based on surviving copies (which are scarce) and secondary evidence (which is often ambiguous). Gutenberg is known to have printed indulgences, calendars, announcements, and other odd fragments. His immediate successors prepared a broadside listing the books they had for sale. Playing cards are known to have been printed even earlier. There are also surviving pamphlets and broadsides, which were sold by hawkers on the street. The literature was different from that of the established publishers who came to define the modern book trade and who worked mostly through the booksellers whose premises had slowly emerged out of the shops of stationers. Political tracts are known through the unrest they fostered. These include sermons that were widely printed and reprinted during the early phase of the Protestant Reformation in Germany, the news sheets printed during the time of the English Commonwealth and Restoration, and the pamphlets that stoked the controversy that led up to the American and French revolutions. Other printed ephemera that were probably published in considerable quantity include horn books and tutors for children, announcements, riddle books, songbooks, prayerbooks, almanacs and prognostications, trade cards, ledgers, and posters.

The Era of Mass Production

There is little reason to believe that the flat-bed platen printing press created by Gutenberg changed much between the time of its invention and the beginning of the nineteenth century. Around 1800, however, a growing demand for books, stimulated by a more literate populace, led to innovations that would transform the worlds of printing and publishing. The wooden press came to be made of iron, with its early forms named in honor of its patron, the third Earl of Stanhope. Its successors, among them the Washington, the Albion, and the Columbian presses, tell of a competition that reached across the ocean. Steam power was quick to be used in driving the press, and soon came the larger presses, among them the flat-bed cylinder presses that served the needs of nineteenth-century newspapers and other large editions that required timely delivery.

Other innovations affected the printing processes. Stereotype plates (i.e., castings of whole pages of type) had been conceived by William Ged in the eighteenth century but were fiercely opposed by the workmen who composed the type and distributed it after printing. By the nineteenth century, stereotyping had become a common option for printers, thanks in large measure to the support of the Earl of Stanhope. Meanwhile, the brothers Fourdrinier, working in London in the 1790s, invented the machinery for producing paper in continuous rolls to replace the cumbersomely produced handmade sheets. By the end of the century, stereotyped printing surfaces could be curved around a cylinder so they could be used on large rotary presses, which rolled the plates against a continuous roll of paper to produce modern newspapers and other large press runs. Also near the end of the century, the Linotype and Monotype further simplified the work of setting type by hand. Other machinery was developed at this time to distribute type and to justify the right margins on the printed page.

These inventions all served to provide more reading matter more quickly in order to meet and in turn to create growing public demands. Printed matter from outside the established world of the book trade was promoted, often by enterprising publishers. These materials included children's literature, gift books, sheet music, popular and local periodicals and newspapers, and organizational pamphlets. Books, previously sold in sheets for purchasers either to bind, lavishly or simply, or to leave unbound, were now sold as bound copies, with covers of boards often covered in cloth and, in time, with book jackets. Publisher's bindings quickly became so pervasive as to lead some publishers of the day to tout their work as cheaper for being in paper.

Lithography had been invented by Alois Sene-felder at the end of the eighteenth century, but his wide ambition was not matched by capital and the process was slow to come into favor. Its ascendancy dates from the middle years of the nineteenth century, when chromolithography (i.e., color printing) was developed. This process was first accomplished by using different stones for each color, which was obviously very cumbersome. It was used primarily for maps and music, ill-suited as they were to movable type, and pictorial material, such as the famous prints of Currier and Ives. Still later the camera, another invention of the nineteenth century, was used to create lithographic printing surfaces, which led to the heralding of texts that had been reproduced by photolithography. Processes that shifted one printing surface to another one (i.e., lithographic transfer), helped make the process particularly appropriate to reprinting.

Paper, basic to the demand for reading matter, came to be produced more cheaply as grasses were introduced into the pulp and stronger acids were used to break down the fibers. The result was to make more printed matter available in an era of high commercial demand, although the cheaper paper has deteriorated more rapidly than has that of earlier periods, which has created major problems in preserving historical evidence in archives and research libraries.

As a device for attracting readers, printed pictures and decorative effects were also fostered in the nineteenth century. Illustrations, common in Renaissance books but seen less often in the word-bound writings of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, returned to literary texts. Artists enjoyed a range of mediums for the creation of book illustrations. In addition to woodcuts and engravings, lithographs were now an option, and new processes were developed for metal cuts. For display work, the classic alphabetic forms were distorted with dramatic blackness and fine Victorian decoration, or they were reshaped to fit the fashions for gothic tastes.

Reacting against the "commonness" that resulted from mass production (and with a social agenda in mind), a group of passionate idealists at the turn of the twentieth century exerted a powerful influence on the design of printed matter. Working in London and for the most part socialist in their politics, William Morris, working at his Kelmscott Press (with the guidance of Walter Crane and Emery Walker), preached a return to Renaissance tastes and English folk art. Personal presses, including those of T. J. Cobden-Sanderson (Doves Press), Charles Ricketts (Vale Press), St. John Hornby (Ashendene Press), Lucien Pissarro (Eragny Press), and Gwendoline and Margaret Davies (Gregynog Press) further helped to revitalize the design of printed books. The cause of public tastes was fostered through the political efforts of Sidney Cockerell and Stanley Morison and with publishing programs such as those of the None-such Press and the Golden Cockerell Press in England and the Limited Editions Club in the United States. New type designs were fostered, based on classical models. Some of the best known of these new faces were created by Stanley Morison (Times New Roman), Bruce Rogers (Centaur), and Hermann Zapf (Palatino). Continental predilections of the futurist, dada, and Bauhaus movements strongly influenced the graphic design of nonbook materials, particularly advertising presentations.

During the twentieth century the printing industries flourished, widening their production of large newspapers and mass-media magazines, of bestsellers and bulk advertising, of an ever-expanding profusion of scholarly books, educational texts, and manuals, and of cards, forms, announcements, and other small job printings. As a surface for printing, paper came to share the press with a wide range of metals, cloths, glasses, and plastics, mostly for the needs of commercial presentation and packaging. New kinds of paper were developed, ranging from the coated stocks used for color illustrations to the alkali forms that promise to survive for library materials. These new and expanding applications have called for a wider range of specialty presses, commercial firms, and trained workers. Photography expanded from basic camera work in the nineteenth century into microforms and other kinds of image copying. Printing has also been obviously affected by computer innovations. For personal use, typewriters have been largely supplanted by dot-matrix and laser printers, while for formal publication, "hot type" (in which the metal itself is inked directly on the printing surface) has largely been replaced by, first, the Photon, and later, by other forms of phototypesetting machinery. The design of type itself has also been enhanced through the digitization of fonts, suggesting that the printing processes will continue to be redefined in order to continue to provide multiple physical copies of written material.

See also:Bibliography; Cataloging and Knowledge Organization; Conservators; Gutenberg, Johannes; Journalism, History of; Newspaper Industry, History of; Publishing Industry;.


Carter, John, and Muir, Percy H., comps. and eds.(1967). Printing and the Mind of Man: A Descriptive Catalogue Illustrating the Impact of Print on the Evolution of Western Civilization During Five Centuries. London: Cassell.

Chappell, Warren. (1970). A Short History of the Printed Word. New York: Knopf.

Gaskell, Philip. (1972). A New Introduction to Bibliography. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Johns, Adrian. (1998). The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

McKenzie, D. F. (1999) Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Steinberg, S. H. (1996). Five Hundred Years of Printing, 4th edition, ed. John Trevitt. Newcastle, DE: Oak Knoll.

D. W. Krummel