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The Book As Artifact: Book Production

The term bibliogony is used to describe the production of books. In The Evolution of the Book, Kilgour (1998, 4) states that there have been

"three major transformations in method and power application in reproducing the codex: machine printing from cast type, powered by human muscle (1455-1814); nonhuman power driving both presses and typecasting machines (1814-1970); and computer-driven photocomposition combined with offset printing (1970-)."

Book design involves a wide range of processes related to planning the physical appearance of the book including paper and type selection, layout, and structure of the book. At first, most of these decisions were made by the printer. However over time, publishers developed specifications that were applied by the printer.

You'll find that many of the well-known book designers and printers were men. However many women also made important contributions. Unfortunately, their names are often overlooked in history.

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Explore Womens Printers, Binders & Book Designers. As you work your way through this page, consider how women may have played important roles that weren't recorded in primary sources of the times or the history of printing books.

This page will explore the printing process and the role of the printer in book production.

Printing involves the production of identical copies of a work using a printing press or other mechanical device. The printer is an individual, family, or business that prints books and other print materials. In the first few centuries of printing, the printer also acted as publisher offering books for sale.

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Go to The Atlas of Early Printing.
Spend some time exploring the early history of printing and the book.

Understanding Printers through Primary Sources

By examining the book as a physical artifact, researchers can learn about how the book was printed including the particular type of ink, press, and printing process.

Analyzing the account books and correspondence of printers, reading autobiographies by printers, exploring legal records and newspapers of the time period, and reading printers' manuals of the time period, help book historians gain insights into the role of the printer in Darnton's "communication circuit." Darnton (1982, 77) suggests that researchers ask question such as

"How did printers calculate costs and organize production, especially after the introduction of machine-made paper in the first decade of the nineteenth century and Linotype in the 1880s?
How did technological changes affect the management of labor?
And what part did journeymen printers, an unusally articulate and militant sector of the working class, play in labor history?"

To better understand how books were printed, it's fascinating to examine books that contain small mistakes.

For lots of examples, read the blog entry Learning from Mistakes by Sarah Werner (February 23, 2012).

The Printing Press

The mid-fifteenth century marked a tremendous change in book production and ultimately print culture. The invention of the printing press around 1440 changed the book from a single object to an industrial age commodity. Books were no longer an item owned exclusively by the rich. By lowering the cost of production, the printing press allowed an enormous increase in production and distribution of books. The physical book we know today originated to this time period.

The printing press and activities of individual printers had a tremendous impact on the availability of books from the mid-1400s to the present. Although hand-written manuscripts continued to be produced, the printed book quickly overtook the manuscript because of its quick production and low relative cost.

printing pressThe Printing Press

A printing press is a machine used to evenly transfer ink to paper or cloth. By applying pressure to an inked surface, the image is transferred to the paper. The device is able to make impressions quickly and efficiently.

The press itself stood from 5 to 7 feet long, 3 feet wide, and 7 feet tall.

The image on the right shows a 3D reconstruction of a common press used from around 1650 to 1850.


The movable type consisted of small metal blocks with raised letters. First the typecaster would cast a punch out from hard metal using a drawing of the letter as a guide. Next, the letter is punched into soft metal like copper to leave an impression. This piece of soft metal containing the impression is called a matrix. The matrix is placed into a mold. The typecaster would make the type by mixing tin, lead, and antimony and pouring it into the mold. Although a skilled typecaster could produce 4,000 metal letters per day, many of the type pieces turned out malformed and could not be used.

The matrices as well as the pieces of type were kept in wooden boxes. The type is storied in wooden trays or drawers known as a typecase (see image below). For each letter, there are three options: capital letter (uppercase), small capital, and small letter (lowercase). In addition, the case contains punctuation marks, spaces, and other type as needed.



The typesetter is in charge of organizing the type pieces into pages on a frame. The composer places the type on a composing stick. The first sticks were made from wood. Later, metal sticks were replaced the wooden ones. The composer must create the text upside down and backwards for it to print correctly.

Completed composing sticks were placed on a large tray known as a gallery. Pieces of metal were placed between rows. These fillers are known as leading. A primary advantage of using movable type over carved or engraved blocks is that corrections can more easily be made. The text is carefully checked before printing. Mistakes are corrected. The type is moved from the galley to an iron frame known as the chase. When wedges and filler pieces are added and tightened up, this frame containing the text creates a tight form.


Printer 1568After the typesetting is complete, the form is laid on the press stone. An oil-based ink is then evenly applied to the type surface. A damp piece of paper was attached to the tympan with pins and held in place by a frame called a frisket. The tympan is then folded down against the inked type. A handle is turned to make the press stone and coffin beneath roll under the platen. Pressure is then placed evenly on the page using a screw on a long bar called the Devil's Tail. The coffin is then pulled back out and the printed page is removed.

The image on the right from around 1568 shows a printing operation.

Most early print shops printed large sheets containing multiple pages. After a page was printed, it was hung up to dry. After one side dried, they turned the page over and printed the other side.

Read Mosley, James (2013). The Technologies of Print. In, M. Suarez & H.R. Woudhuysen, The Book: A Global History. Oxford University Press. IUPUI students can view the article online.

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Go to the Printing Press Animation.
Learn about how a printing press works.

Have some fun learning about letterpress printing. Watch the following three videos:
Old Skool Printing
Upside Down, Left to Right: A Letterpress Film

15th Century Printing

Books printed between the introduction of the printing press and January 1, 1501 are known as incunables. Also known as incunabula or fifteener, an incunable is a pamphlet, broadside, or book printed before 1501 in Europe. The term incunbula is Latin referring to the earliest stage or trace of a development. In this case, the printed book.

Many authors consider incunables to be those printed using movable type. However two types of printing co-existed during this time period.

Block Book Printing

Block book printing involved creating a single carved or sculpted wooden block for each page. The text and illustrations were cut onto the same block. They were particularly popular in the mid fifteenth century. Most of these books were less than fifty pages. Block-books were often cheaper than those produced on the new movable type printers. However they suffered from damage including worms and deformation.

As the printing press became more popular, movable type replaced woodblocks for text. However woodcuts continued to be used for reproducing images in illustrated works.

While the printing press generally printed on both sides of a sheet, block-books were printed on one side. The pages were glued together to produce the look of two sided printing.

Speculum Humanae Salvationis or Mirror of Human Salvation (image shown below) is a famous and common example of a block-book. A work of popular theology, the book portrays events from the Bible. Some editions are entirely block-book printing and others combine block-book with typographic book printing.

speculum humanae salvationis

Ars Moriendi or The Art of Dying (image from book shown below left) was written in the early to mid 1400s and created on woodcuts for printing around 1460. The first guide to death and dying, the work was available in a short and long version that described how to prepare to die and die well.

Ars Moriendibible

Biblia pauperum or Pauper's Bible (image from book shown above right) was a Bible picture book published with block-book printing.

Typographic or Movable Type Book Printing

Typographic book printing was the second type of printing during this period. It was created by placing individual pieces of cast metal movable type into a printing press.

Although the invention of the printing press is credited to Johannes Gutenberg, other versions of printing devices occurred earlier. The idea for movable type was first introduced by Bi Sheng of China who made type from porcelain around 1040. During the first part of the thirteenth century, Koreans created the first metal type.

However it was Gutenberg's press that gained notoriety and was reproduced throughout Europe. Around 1440, Johannes Gutenberg of Mainz, Germany developed the European version of movable type.

Metal movable type printing much more durable and uniform than woodblock printing. In addition, it was much quicker. Printing spread rapidly across Europe with the increasing availability of the printing press.

Korean Printer

In the 14th century, a Korean printer was printing books in the Chinese language using cast bronze type. Because there was a shortage of wood for carving, metal was a logic alternative that turned out to work well. This approach was expensive and labor intensive.

The image below shows movable type from the first printed book in Korea around 1377.


Johann Gutenberg

As a goldsmith familiar with screw presses, Johann Gutenberg (c. 1399-1468) adapted existing technology to create the printing press. What made Gutenberg's movable metal type unique was his invention of a special matrix that allowed the moulding of metal type with high precision. His mould made it possible to easily and quickly create metal movable type in larger qualities. This allowed an assembly-line approach to book production.

A letterpress is the specific type of printing press used by Gutenberg. The printing surface was coated with ink and transferred to paper. The letterpress continued to be used into the 20th century.

Besides the printing press, Gutenberg is also credited with the invention of an oil-based ink that was much more durable than water-based inks.

The first major book to be printed by Gutenberg was the Bible, known as the Gutenberg Bible or 42-line Bible (book is shown below). Printed in the 1450s, the Gutenberg Bible was a Vulgate edition written in Latin. The decoration around the margins and in the headings was done by hand after the pages were printed. The book was over 1200 pages and was printed in two separate volumes. Approximately forty-eight copies survived and are considered the most valuable books in the world.

gutenberg bible


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Want to have some fun? Read a preview of Gutenberg: The Musical by Anthony King and Scott Brown. Then, explore one of the promos on YouTube.


Nicolas Jenson

Nicolas Jenson (c. 1430-1480) printed early classical and humanist texts, canon law, Bibles, and liturgical works. Having apprenticed at the royal mint in Paris, where he likely learned about metals. Sent to Germany to learn about the printing press, he later became a printer making his own roman type. He was a prolific printer distributing his work throughout Europe.

The image below left shows Julius Caesar works printed by Nicolas Jenson around 1471. The image on the right shows Nicolas Jenson's printer's mark.

caesartypemark jenson

LeeuAfter 1469, printing spread rapidly across Europe. According to Lommen (2012), trade in type matrices was responsible for this explosion of printing. Printers like Koberger, Ratdolt, and Leeu used their international connections to spread thousands of books throughout Europe.

Many printers were known for a particular genre of book. For instance, Bonino De Boninis (1454-1528) also known as Dobrić Dobrićević, is known for printing classics including Dante's Divine Comedy.

Gheraert Leeu

Gheraert Leeu (c. 1445-1492) was a Dutch printer best known for his printing of fables.

Printed in 1480, The Dialogus Creaturarum Moralisatus or The Dialogues of the Creatures Moralized contains 122 dialogues between characters found in nature. The book includes a woodcut for each tale.

The image (by Johi) left shows a status dedicated to Leeu.

ratdoltErhard Ratdolt

Erhard Ratdolt (c. 1447-c. 1528) set up a printshop in Venice in 1474 then moved to Augsburg Bavaria in 1486.

He is best known for printing a high-quality version of Euclid's Elements of Geometry in 1482. The book contains woodcut decorations and over 400 diagrams created with straight and curved metal rules.

The image on the right shows a page from Euclid's Elements notice the mixture of border, text, and illustrations.

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Go to Elements of Euclid at Wikimedia Commons. Compare various translations and printers.

Aldus Manutius

aldusVenice became the home to many printers in the late 15th and 16th centuries.

Aldus Manutius (1450-1515) was a humanist scholar. During the Italian Renaissance, he established a print shop in Venice called Adline Press. Manutius was known for his beautifully illustrated books focusing on Greek and Latin classics. However he also published other works such as religious materials, secular texts, geography, history, and scientific treatise.

The image on the right shows Aldus Manutius.

Aldus Manutius combined metal type with woodblock illustrations. Many of his books include interesting text layouts.

Modeled after the handwriting of Venetian scribes, Manutius used the term italic for this new type because it was invented in Italy. His work inspired many of his successors.


Hypernerotomachia Poliphili or Poliphili's Strife of Love in a Dream (image shown above) written by Francesco Colonna and printed by Aldus Manutius is an outstanding example of both writing and printing during this period.

Published in Venice in 1499, the allegorical romance is a typical topic for the Early Renaissance. However the use of the inverted triangle, empty whitespace, and indented paragraphs are unique to Manutius. According to Harthan (1981), the book was initially a commercial disaster, but the woodcuts were admired.

The image on the left below shows how Manutius combined woodcuts with interesting ways to present text.

In 1501 Manutius printed the first portable octavos that were pocket-sized and printed in uniform series. Known as libri portatiles, they targeted readers with a growing interest in humanism.

aldusaldus mark

In 1502, Manutius began using a printer's mark that included a dolphin and anchor. The mark was intended to assure customers that his work was of high quality.

The image on the right above shows Aldus Manutius printer emblem.

William Caxton

caxtonWilliam Caxton (c. 1422?-1491) learned the craft of printing by studying in Germany and Belgium. After learning the process, he returned to London England to set up a print shop at Westminster Abbey. Caxton was known as an excellent editor and translator in addition to his work as a printer.

Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye was the first book printed in English. Originally written in French by Raoul Lefevre, it was translated and printed by Caxton around 1475. A first edition copy was presented to Margaret of York.

The Dicts and Sayings of the Philosophers (1477) is one of the first book printed in England. It contained a colophon indicating the printer and place of publication.

The image on the right shows the printer's device of William Caxton.

Caxton printed Geoffrey Chaucer's poem The Canterbury Tales in 1476. Seven years later he printed a corrected text and added illustrations. It became a very popular book.

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Begin by reading a little more about Caxton's Chaucer. Go to Treasures in Full to explore two digital versions of Canterbury Tales. Notice the small changes in his printing skills over six years.

Anton Koberger

ChronicleAnton Koberger (c. 1440-1513) was a printer, publisher, and goldsmith. He opened the first printing house in Nuremberg in 1470. At its height, he employed 100 workers in his printing house. He is best known for printing and publishing the Nuremberg Chronicle.

The most common incunable to survive, the Nuremberg Chronicle is a wonderful example of the early printed book with around 1250 known surviving copies. Written by Hartmann Schedel and illustrated by Michael Wolgemut and Wilhelm Pleydenwurff, the book was published by Anton Koberger in 1493.

Based on the Bible, the book tells the story of human history. The book is also known as the Book of Chronicles and Schedel's World History. The printing was completed based on a contract with patrons. In other words, the patrons covered the cost of book production and distribution.

The book contains 1809 woodcut illustrations with 645 original to the book making it the most illustrated incunable (an image from the book is shown on the left).

The Age of Incunabula

Early printing was distributed throughout Europe. Incunabula were printed in 282 cities in 20 countries. The most books were produced in Italy, Germany, Trance, and the Netherlands.

Besides the printers mentioned, many other early printers emerged such as Gunther Zainer of Augsburg, Johannes Mentelin and Heinrich Eggestein of Strasbourg, and Heinrich Gran of Haguenau.

Early printing presses could produce 3600 pages were day. The skills were passed of from master to apprentice and often father to son. The art of printing was carefully preserved through close study.

David Pankow, author of The Printer's Manual: An Illustrated History, notes that printing innovations were kept secret during the early years of printing. His website states that:

"As printing from movable type was perfected  in the fifteenth century, the mysteries of its practice were guarded by a privileged few. Gutenberg himself took great pains to avoid disclosing the techniques he had developed for the rapid multiplication of books, only to see the fruits of his long research snatched away from him by his chief creditor, Johann Fust, in an ignominious lawsuit. To make matters worse, tradition has it that Gutenberg's apprentice Peter Schöffer took the secrets of the new craft, joined forces with Fust, and, together with his new partner, reaped the benefits of his former master's toil."

The British Library's Incunabula Short Title Catalogue contains 27,400 incunabula editions. Many interesting statistics can be gathered using this catalog such as examining the collection by date, number of known copies, and location.

Below left shows a map of 15th century printing of incunabula. Below right shows incunabula by language.

map of europeincunabula


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Go to the British Library's Incunabula Short Title Catalogue spend some time browsing the collection.

Read Gondi, Cristina (2013). The European Printing Revolution. In, M. Suarez & H.R. Woudhuysen, The Book: A Global History. Oxford University Press. IUPUI students can view the article online.


16th Century Printing

frobBy the 16th century, printing jobs had become increasingly specialized. The role of publisher and bookseller became increasingly important. These people served to bridge the printer and the customer. However printers continued to play an important role in both the manufacture and sales side of printing.

In many cases, printing was a family business. For instance, Johann Froben (c. 1460-1527) was a printer and publisher in Basel, Switzerland. Johann's son Hieronymus Froben and grandson Amrosius Froenius were also part of the printing business. Johann was friends with Erasmus and published many of his books.

The image on the right shows Johannes Froben's printer's device.

Estienne Printing Dynasty

robertThe Estienne family is another great example of how printing became a family enterprise.

Henri Estienne (c. 1460-1520) was the head of a printing dynasty from France. He was known for producing textbooks and other scholarly materials. Estienne was known to be a scholar and was meticulous in his works.

When errors were found, he would issue errata sheets. He may have been one of the first print these types of sheets.

The image on the left shows Robert Estienne.

charlesRobert Estienne (1503-1559) was the son of Henri Estienne. He was known to make changes in theological texts that were not approved by the church. When his work was criticized by the clergy, he would issue errata sheets showing corrections. However he continued to print what he wished. As the Royal printer, he had this flexibility. However when King Francis I died in 1547 his works were officially censured.

Charles Estienne (1504-1564) was also the son of Henri Estienne. He studied anatomy and made discoveries in the area of the nervous system. In 1551 he was appointed King's printer and published a number of books.

The image on the right shows a page from De dissectione partium corporis humani libri tres (1545). To view see additional pages from this well known book, explore Historical Anatomies on the Web from the National Library of Medicine.

Simon de Colines (1480-1546) was a Parisian printer. Henri Estienne's widow married Colines. As a result, Charles Estienne became Colines's stepson. According to Lommen (2012, 106), Colines

"is considered to be the greatest typographic innovator of the French Renaissance. In little over a quarter of a century, he produced some eight hundred publications, which are admired for their typographic design." Colines used elegant types and superior craftsmanship in his works. He printed both classic works by Aristotle, Cicero, and Euclid as well as the best of Renaissance scholars.

Read Amert, Kay (2005). Intertwining strengths: Simon de Colines and Robert Estienne. Book History, 8, 1-10. IUPUI students can view the article online.

France's Royal Printers

In France, print took a different approach than in other countries, the Imprimeurs du roi pour le Grec or Royal Greek Printers were established by Francois I in 1538 to publish literature for the French government. People like Robert Estienne and Claude Garamond worked under this press.

In 1640, Cardinal Richelieu formed the Imprimerie Royale in France. Then, it became Imprimerie du Louvre and Imprimerie Imperiale. During the 18th century, the printing was managed by the Anisson family and grew into the largest European press with over 50 presses after the French Revolution.

Book Structure

During the 16th Century, the book structure we know today became standardized. Simon de Colines was responsible for establishing much of this structure. According to Amert (2012),

"Colines as much as anyone built the semiotic structure of the book as we now know it, with its chapter headings and subheads, page numbers and running heads, tables of contents, indices, and source notes."

After 1470, title pages became a standard component of books to promote the names of publishers. Because publishers often relied on investors, they needed to recover their investment through large editions.

According to Morison and Jackson (1923, 12),

"The title-page began as a mere two-line text printed high up on the page. The printer's trade-mark or device, a pictorial woodcut, subsequently become an integral part of the title-page, and, while the printer's name was to continue in its position at the end of the book, it become usual to foot the title-page with the name of the bookseller or publisher."

Rather than placing printer and publisher information on a title page, many publishers used a colophon to mark the printer. Simon de Colines is known for his use of the rabbit marks in the colophon.

The image below left (from the Penn Provenance Project) shows Simon de Colines' rabbit mark.

Raison darchitecture (1542) is an example of a book on architecture that Colines printed (shown below right).


Besides the introduction of the title page, other layout features began to appear and become standardized. The use of white space, paragraph indentation, and other elements took shape.

Typography and Printing

During the 16th century, the role of typographer gained importance in the printing process. Many new typefaces were invented. From the mid 1550s, set of decoration types known as fleurons were created. They were combined to create elaborate arabesques. However this type of decoration declined by the early 1600s. It was revisited again in the 18th century.

Geoffroy Tory (c 1480-1533) was a French artist born who worked with Colines. He brought Italian semi-floral, semi-architectural methods to French books. In 1524 they published Horace in elegant roman type.

Tory introduced the idea that typefaces didn't need to replicate hand writing. He published a copy of The Book of Hours in 1525 that reflecting this shift in thinking. Then in 1529, Tory published Champfleury focusing on the use of the French language. Tory was appointed printer to the king by Francois I in 1530 and was made a librarian at the University of Paris in 1532.

The image below shows Tory's letter A from Champfleury (1529).


Claude Garamont also known as Garamond (c. 1490-1561) was a French printer known for his typography. His influence is still felt today in typefaces like Garmond. Garamond worked under both Colines and Tory.

chrisChristophe Plantin

Christophe Plantin (c. 1520-1589) was a printer and publisher. He established his Plantin Press in Antwerp, Belgium. Although he began publishing anatomical works, he is best known for this liturgical works.

The image on the right by artist Hendrik Goltzius shows Christophe Plantin.

His most famous project was Biblia Polyglotta or Polyglot Bible published the eight volumes between 1568 and 1573. Published in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, and Aramaic, it was a very ambitious work.

During this time Protestant movements were attracting great interest. Plantin published the massive Bible partly to show loyalty to the Catholic Church and King Philip II of Spain.

17th Century Printing

The Netherlands became a center for printing in the 17th century. Paulus Aertsz van Ravesteyn, Cornelis Claesz and Willem Jansz Blaeu were well known printers of the time.

fencingHouse of Elzevir

Dutch printers were known for creating works that were suppressed in other countries for religious reasons. For instance, Lodewijk Elzevir published the works of Galileo.

Lodewijk Elzevir (c. 1540-1617) founded a publishing business known as House of Elzevir. He began as a bookbinder working for Christophe Plantin and produced his first book in 1583. The focus on the business was science.

His sons and grandsons continued the business after his death.

The image on the right shows the title page for Italienische Fechtkunst printed by Isack Elzevier (1619).

Although the company folded in 1791, the business name was reintroduced in 1880 and continues to publish science works today.


Despite the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), Germany continued to be a center of printing also.

An interest in quality illustration was growing across Europe. During the 17th Century, illustration took a central role in book printing. Readers became interested in books that included scientific illustration and cartography.

Theodor De Bry (1528-1598) was an editor and engraver who founded a print dynasty. Many of his books were first-hand accounts of world travel by others that he retold and illustrated. His most famous work was the publication of Les Grands Voyages or The Great Travels, a series of books about North America beginning in 1588.

Thomas Hariot's book A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (1590) was well received and many people know Theodor De Bry from the illustrations for this book. His sons continued the business throughout the 17th century.

The image below left shows Columbus from the book America, Part 4 (1594) printed by Theodor De Bry (from University of Houston Libraries). The image below right shows an American Indian village published in A Briefe and True Report of the new Found Land of Virginia.


callotJacques Callot (1592-1635) had a tremendous impact on 17th century printing and illustration.

Callot made technical advances in etching through the use of an etching needle with a slanting oval section at the end as well as the development of an improved recipe of the etching ground that coated the plate. His realistic depictions of war transformed French book illustration.

The image on the left shows an illustration by Jacques Callot titled Le Massacre des Innocents.

Illustrators like Leonard Gaultier, Claude Vignon, Claude Mellan, Abraham Bosse, and Francois Chauveau began creating observations etching of social habits, costumes, and the activities of society.

title pageThe engraved title-page was developed during this time period. According to Harthan (1981), a number of designs were used for these title pages as such "an architectural portico through which the reader enters the book." Other designs included portraits of authors and patrons on the title page.

Robert Nanteuil (c. 1623-1678) was a French engraver and printmaker. Known for the quality of his portraits, he created over 200 title pages.

The image on the right shows an portrait engraving by Robert Nanteuil like those commonly found in the front matter of books.

Professional artists like Peter Paul Rubens and Rembrandt were often involved with book illustration as well. Both Rubens and Rembrandt created title pages. Rubens was known for his

"masterly understanding of the function of the allegorical title-page, treating it differently from the isolated print or engraving. He knew how to convey the book's contents in a decorative as well as symbolical manner" (Harthan, 1981, 117).

The Business and Craft of Printing

In many parts of Europe in the 17th century, printers were less focused on the craft and more interested in the business side of printing. According to Lommen (2012, 150),

"early seventeenth century Venetian printers could not match the skills of predecessors such as Aldus Manutius. The printing was uneven, and the ornaments and decorative initials are a mixture of old sixteenth-century and new baroque materials."

However some small advances in printing craft were being made in England. David Pankow, author of The Printer's Manual: An Illustrated History, notes that by the end of the seventeenth century, manufacturing technology was expanding rapidly and the trade secrets were being shared.

Joseph Moxon (1627-1691) was the son of printer. He was also an English hydrographer and printer specializing in mathematics book and maps. He produced the first English language mathematics dictionary. However he's best known for his Mechanick Exercises published in 1683. He felt strongly about the importance of sharing the art and practice of printing with workman who wished to refine their skills. In the preface, he states that

"The Lord Bacon in his 'Natural History' reckons that philosophy would be improved by having the secrets of all trades lye open; not only because much experimental philosophy is caught among them, but also that the trades themselves might by a philosopher be improved. Besides, I find that one trade may borrow many eminent helps in work of another trade."

By far the earliest book on this topic, Mechanick Exercises described in great detail the printing methods used during that time period. Over the next couple centuries many authors borrowed his ideas for use in their own books on printing.

The images below are from Mechanick Exercises: Or, the Doctrine of Handy-Works, Applied to the Art of Printing (1683) by Joseph Moxon. The image on the left shows a printing press and the image on the right shows paper drying.

moxon moxon

Printing in America

In North America, printing businesses were developing along the east Coast.

Increase Mather (1639-1723) was a minister, author, and prominent figure in the history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

In 1670 he published a biography of his father, Richard Mather and included the first known woodcut printed in America. The wood cut is attributed to John Foster.

The image below left shows the woodcut of Richard Mather published in 1670.


Although Mather published over 125 works on a variety of topics, he is best known for his prominent role in the Salem witch trials. In 1693, he published a book titled Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits (image shown above right).

new englandJohn Foster (1648-1681) was America's first wood engraver and first Boston printer. After graduating from Harvard, he opened a printing office and printed his first book in 1676.

In 1677 he printed a map of New England inscribed "The first that ever was cut here" (San Juan Islander, 1905) in A Narrative of the Troubles with the Indians in New-England by William Hubbard (1677).

The image on the right shows the map from A Narrative of the Troubles with the Indians in New-England. To view up close versions, go to the Massachusetts Historical Society.

To learn more about the early history of printing in colonial America, skim Wroth, Lawrence C. (1922). A History of Printing in Colonial Maryland: 1686-1776. Typothetae of Baltimore.

18th Century Printing

Increasingly, jobs in the printing business became more specialized and fewer printers did all the work themselves from writing and engraving through to publishing and sales.

Professional Illustrators

Like the 17th century, many professional painters were also involved with book production. Their artwork often needed further work by engraver before printing. By the middle of the 18th century, there was such a demand for illustrators that this became a separate profession. This new type of illustrator had skills as an artist as well as an engraver.

The pressures of the business demanded that artists collaborate. For instance Ovid's Metamorphoses (1767-1771) including engravings by many of the best illustrators of the time including Boucher, Gravelot, Eisen, and Moreau le Jeune.

The 18th century marked a shift from baroque to rococo styles. It was a time of ornamentation, decorative elements, and playfulness in illustration. Illustrators used a combination of etching and engraving on copper plates.

According to Lommen (2012, 226),

"in the eighteenth century, book illustrations were often etchings or copperplate engravings. These were printed from metal plates, while the text was printed from cast metal types. The illustrations (intaglio) and the text (letterpress) had to be printed on two different presses. Therefore, wood engravings became popular towards the end of the eighteenth century: the metal type and the block of wood would be printed simultaneously. Wood engraving was an illustration technique went on to dominate the market for a century."

Title page vignettes became popular during this time. A full page on the title page and a small design at the head of a chapter and the end would provide a decorative expression.

Johann Ulrich Kraus (1655-1719) was a German illustrator and publisher in Germany. His Historische Bilder Bibel contains elaborate illustrations and fantasy architecture.

The images below are from Historische Bilder Bibel.


Toward the end of the 18th century, English book publishing experienced a surge in beautifully illustrated books. A number of new illustration and printing techniques were introduced.

rulesThe Business of Printing Houses

Printing houses had become well-established. No longer was printing simply a a family business. The positions within the printing house became more specialized. The compositors arranged the metal type in the frame for printing. The pressmen worked the printing press.

James Watson was an important Scottish printer.

The image shows 1721 broadside published by James Watson detailing the rules and directions to be observed in printing houses. The original is housed at the National Library of Scotland.

Printing in America

poor richardsIn America, the printing business was growing rapidly.

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) was a scientist, diplomat, printer, and publisher. As an apprentice, he learned about printing at the Boston newspaper called The New England Courant.

From 1730-1748 he owned and operated a printing business that published the Philadelphia Gazette. He published a successful series called Poor Richard's Almanack (1733-1758).

Other American Revolution patriots such as Paul Revere was also involved in printing.

try itTry It!
Skim Wroth, Lawrence C. (1938). The Colonial Printer. Southworth-Anthoensen Press.
Examine the chart titled The Diffusion of Printing. Notice the connections. Work your way through the book exploring the different aspects of the colonial printing business including type, ink, paper, roles, bindings, and products.
What would like have been like as a printer during this time period?

costscolonial press

Printing Music

With hundreds of symbols and elements, printing music was a complex process. Woodcuts continued to be used through the 16th century.

In the 18th century, European printers began to typeset music.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, American printers used freehand engraving for producing music. Engraving continued to be used into the 20th century.

By the 19th century, J.G.I. Breikopf perfected the mosaic system of music printing.


19th Century Printing

In the 19th century, a major transformation occurred in printing. Production shifted from human muscle-powered printing to nonhuman power printing. New technology allowed automation of both the typecasting and press components of printing.

Cast Iron Press

By 1800, scientist and statesman Charles Stanhope (1753-1816) constructed a cast iron press (shown below left) that reduced the force necessary to produce a print. This improved the efficiency of the press. It was capable of printing 2480 sheets per hour.

cast ironkoenig

Steam Printing Press

Steam printing press (shown above right) dramatically reduced the costs of book production. The first of these steam presses was built by German printer Friedrich Koenig (1774-1833) in 1812. His press was also the first to require no manpower. In just a few years, his presses increased from 800 to 2400 impressions per hour.


The introduction of electrotyping in 1838 by Mortiz con Jacobi (1801-1874) made mass production possible. It allowed printers to duplicate printing blocks that were more resistant to wear. By the late 19th century, electrotyping became the standard method for creating plates.

The image below shows the electrotyping department of the New York Herald in 1902.


Rotary Printing Press

Invented in 1843 by Richard March Hoe 1812-1886), the rotary printing press allowed millions of copies of a page to be printed each day. Rolled paper allowed a continuous feed of paper keeping the presses running at a fast pace.

The image below from the History of the Processes of Manufacture (1864) shows Hoe's 6-cyclinder press.



Offset Printing

In offset printing, an inked image is transferred from a plate to a rubber blanket, then to paper. In 1875, Robert Barclay patented the first offset printing press in England using a metal cylinder to print on tin. In 1901 Ira Washington Rubel of New Jersey discovered that a rubber roller was more effective and began using the process to print books. Offset printing is still used today. It is an economically way to produce large, high-quality prints. Today, computer to plate systems are used.


Linotype Machine

lintotypeOttmar Mergenthaler (1854-1899) invented the Linotype machine in 1886. Because of its revolutionary impact, he's been called the "Second Gutenberg".

The linotype was the first machine that could quickly create a complete set of type for use in printing presses. This hot-metal typesetting allowed the operator to type text on a 90 character keyboard and the machine would cast the linotype (line-of-type), a complete line of type. The matrices could be reused.

The image on the left shows the linotype machine around 1904 in the book The Practice of Typography: Modern Methods of Book Composition by Theodore Low De Vinne.

The linotype caught on quickly and rapidly displaced the typefoundries. Most foundries merged into the American Type Founders Company (ATF) established in 1892. The ATF helped to standardize type. They published The American Specimen Book of Type Styles in 1912 as a price list as well as an encyclopedia of typographic styles.

Printing Press Revival

By the late 1800s, poor production quality was a problem. New high-speed presses were churning out thousands of books using cheap ink and paper. Printers just wanted to make money. By the turn of the century some publishers were ready for the return of quality works. Some printers reintroduced the tools, techniques, and type of earlier times.

PlantinAmerican Theodore Low De Vinne (1828-1914) was an influential printer and typographer. He developed printing skills and worked his way up to own a printing business in New York known as De Vinne Press. He co-designed the popular typeface Century Roman. He is best known for his books on the history and practice of printing.

In The Invention of Printing (1878, 9), De Vinne described the history of printing and printers and explored the importance of building on their legacy. He also described the problem with studying history.

"The Invention of Printing has always been recognized by educated men as a subject of importance... Its early history is entangled with a controversy about rival inventors which has lasted for more than three centuries, and is not yet fully determined."

De Vinne authored a well-known book on printer Christopher Plantin in 1888. His introduction reflects his thoughts about the art of printing and the need to revisit the first printers.

"The modern printing-office is not al all picturesque. Whether it be old, with grimy hand-presses and dingy types, or new, with huge iron machines and long lanes of cases and stones, it does not invite the artistic pencil. Without doubt the cradle of books, but can one see any poetry about the cradle?" (De Vinne, 1888, 9)

The Private Press Movement

The Arts and Crafts movement flourished between 1860 and 1930. While popular presses were running at high volume with low quality books, a few private presses emerged that focused on quality and fine works.

The Aesthetic movement of the period brought a revival of high quality illustration. Since photography was becoming common, book buyers "began to treat illustrated books rather more as precious objects and less as objects of use" (Harthan, 1981).

Lead by William Morris (1834-1896), the English Arts and Crafts movement brought a return to the antiqua forms, as well as, a focus on simplicity. Morris called his hand craftsmanship and focus on high-quality illustration and typography "The Book Beautiful." According to Harthan (1981), Morris viewed himself as a "decorator by profession." In 1896, William Morris wrote

"I begin printing books with the hope of producing some which would have a definite claim to beauty, while at the same time they should be easy to read and should not dazzle the eye, or trouble the intellect of the reader by eccentricity of form in the letters."

To learn more about William Morris, go to Morris Online Edition.

Inspired by William Morris, the works of this period moved toward simple quality. Morris wanted to revive quality printing. He disliked the industrial movement and returned to the use of the hand press and his own types based on 15th century models. In 1890 Morris began to design the Kelmscott types.

The image on the right is from The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (1896).

Morris's Kelmscott Press established in 1891 was the first of a private press movement that reached into the 20th century. Beautiful books were published by Kelmscott Press between 1891 and 1897. The 53 books that Kelmscott Press printed were greatly admired. Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) was Morris's primary illustrator. The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (1896) is considered to be one of the great books of all time (Harthan, 1981).

The Kelmscott Press colophone is shown below right.

The Nature of Gothic (1892) by John Ruskin is an example of a work printed by Kelmscott Press (image shown on left).


dovesCharles Ricketts (1866-1931) was an artist, typographer and printer. Like the others, he wanted to revive quality works. In 1889, Charles Ricketts along with Charles Shannon, an artist and lithography created Vale Press in London. Later, Thomas Moore, and William Hacon joined the group. They produced 75 books.

English bookbinder Thomas Cobden-Sanderson (1840-1922) and businessman Emery Walker (1851-1933) admired the work of William Morris with Kelmscott Press. They established Doves Press in 1900 to focus quality printing with little decoration and quality typography.

Publishing around 40 books, they focused on the beauty of typography and pure design. They modeled their type after Jenson's from the 1500s.

The image on the right shows The Bible published by Doves Press in 1900.

Many other private presses like Eragny and Esse House also emerged in England.

In 1902 St. John Hornby had been experimenting with the Caslon and Fell fonts and established the Ashendene Press with type adapted from the 15th century.

A revival in printing was also found in Holland, France, Germany, and the United States.

The Revival in the United States began with D.B. Updike who founded Merrymount Press.

In 1893, Will Bradley produced a book in 1896 and directed Wayside Press.

In 1899, Houghton Mifflin's Riverside Press began producing fine books.

Technology and the "End of Books"

While many of those involved in the arts and crafts movement shunned the new print technologies, others saw how technology could use be used to create high-quality books.

Louis Octave Uzanne (1851-1931) is an example of a French bibliophile and publisher who embraced new technology in book production. He wanted to produce luxury books incorporating the latest technology. He advocated that authors, artists, typographers, printers, and binders all work closely together to produce quality works.

In 1894, Uzanne wrote an article titled The End of Books in Scribner's Magazine which predicted the rise of technologies that would incorporate words, sounds, and images. Meeting with people like Thomas Edison, Uzanne foresaw the changes in media that technology would cause.

try itTry It!
Read The End of Books by Octave Uzanne. Think about the changes that were happening in the late 19th century. Compare his work to a recent article predicting the end of books.

Skim Silverman, Willa Z. (2004). "Books worthy of our era"? Octave Uzanne, technology, and the luxury book in Find-de-Siecle France. Book History, 7, 239-284. IUPUI students can view the article online.

20th Century Printing

dadaWhile Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau continued to have an impact, a new movement emerged in the early 20th century.

According to Lommen (2012), those involved with the avant-garde movement including Futurists, Dadaists, Constructivists, and others rejected the traditional aesthetic views and conventions.

These politically charged groups focused on visual design. For instance, Theo van Doesburg published What is Dada? in 1923, a manifesto that stressed anti-bourgeois and anti-war politics.


Much of the art is inspired by Japanese art.

Walter Crane (1845-1915) was a popular children's book illustrator and leader in the Arts and Crafts movement as well as Art Nouveau. The images below are by Walter Crane.


After World War I, the costs of printing illustrations in books became more expensive. As such, most contemporary novels no longer contained illustrations.

The modernist movement gained speed after World War II. Graphic designers like Paul Rand (1914-1996) produced work in the corporate world of logo design and advertising as well as the creation of picture books like Sparkle and Spin: A Book About Words.

During the 1950s, graphic design became a recognized profession.

In the 1990s, a backlash against the modernist credo "less is more" was replaced by a pop culture focus known as postmodernism.

try itTry It!
Read about the RR Donnelley & Sons Company. Skim the website using the left navigation bar.
How does this company reflect the printing industry of the 19th and 20th centuries?

Technology in Printing

Third major transformation in the method and power of printing occurred during the 20th century. Technology tools allowed new ways of thinking about how information could be stored and shared.

In 1945, Vannevar Bush invented a devise known as the memex. He developed a way to store and distribute scientific information on books made of microform pages. These pages could be "hyperlined" for non-linear access.

Computers became a common part of the printing process in the second half of the 20th century. Dot matrix printers were introduced in the 1960s. A print head moved back and forth on the paper printing tiny dots on the page. They continued to be used until the 1970s and 1980s.

Letterpress, lithography, and other analog methods required printing plates that needed to be replaced. In the early 1970s, computer-based photocomposition was combined with off-set printing for a new way of thinking about duplication of materials.

Digital printing resulted in quick, high quality, low cost images. Although some fine detail was lost in early versions, new printers can produce fine-image detail. Inkjet using ink and laser printers using toner are the most popular methods.

By the end of the 20th century, letterpress books were becoming rare.

"The PBS NewsHour visits Arion Press in San Francisco during the making of what is likely the last Bible to be printed by letterpress from hot metal type. 'This Bible is unique because this place is unique. It's one of the last shops in the world where all the work on a book is done under one roof. Press director Andrew Hoyem designed and printed the Bible here, and his colleagues cast the type, made the covers, and bound the work by hand. These artisans and their tools have been designated an endangered cultural treasure by the National Trust for Historic preservation'."

Browse the PBS Newshour special featuring Arion Press. Explore Arion Press to learn more about letterpress book.

21st Century

In The Evolution of the Book, Kilgour (1998, 3) states that

"In the last third of the twentieth century, the book in the shape of a long-familiar object composed of inked sheets folded, cut, and bound began to metamorphose into the book as a screen display on an electronic machines; the transformation, in materials, shape, and structure, of the device for carrying written and graphic information was more extreme than any since the original creations on clay and papyrus in the third millennium B.C.".

Books on Printing

Books on printing provide book historians with useful information about the process and tools used by printers during different points in history.

The image below is the frontispiece from the 1721 German book on printing titled Die Wol-eingerichtete Buchdruckerey. It provides a wonderful glimpse into the daily operations of the 18th century printing house.


List of books related to printing.

A Dictionary of the Printers and Booksellers Who Were At Work in England, Scotland and Ireland from 1668-1725 (1922) by Henry Robert Plomer (1856-1928).

Stephen Daye and His Successors by (1921). Explores the history of the University Press in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the 17th century.


Amert, Kay (2012). The Scythe and the Rabbit: Simon de Colines and the Culture of the Book in Renaissance Paris. RIT Press.

Amert, Kay (2005). Intertwining strengths: Simon de Colines and Robert Estienne. Book History, 8, 1-10.

Cormack, Bradin & Mazzio, Carla (2005). Book Use, Book Theory: 1500-1700. Available:

Darnton, Robert (Summer 1982). What is the history of books? Daedalus, 111, 65-83.

Darnton, Robert (1979). The Business of Enlightenment: A Publishing History of the Encyclopédie 1775-1800. Harvard University Press. Preview Available: and full-text is available at

Gondi, Cristina (2013). The European Printing Revolution. In, M. Suarez & H.R. Woudhuysen, The Book: A Global History. Oxford University Press.

Jenisch, Jared (April 2003). The history of the book: introduction, overview, apologia. portal: Libraries and the Academy, 229-239.

Kilgour, Frederick (1998). The Evolution of the Book. Oxford University Press. Available:

Lommen, Mathieu (ed.) (2012). The Book of Books: 500 Years of Graphic Innovation. Thames & Hudson.

Morison, Stanley & Jackson, Holbrook (1923). A Brief Survey of Printing: History and Practice. Alfred A. Knopf. Available:

Mosley, James (2013). The Technologies of Print. In, M. Suarez & H.R. Woudhuysen, The Book: A Global History. Oxford University Press.

Pankow, Davis (2005). The Printer's Manual: An Illustrated History. RIT Cary Graphic Arts.

San Juan Islander (1905). A New England Genius. Available:

Tanselle, Thomas G. (1995). Printing history and other history. Studies in Bibliography, 48, 269-289.

Thomas, Isaiah & Thomas, Benjamin Franklin (1874). The History of Printing in America.
Volume 2 Available:
Volume 5 Available:

Wroth, Lawrence C. (1938). The Colonial Printer. Southworth-Anthoensen Press. Available:

Wroth, Lawrence C. (1922). A History of Printing in Colonial Maryland: 1686-1776. Typothetae of Baltimore. Available:

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