by John Howells and Marion Dearman
(Discovery Press, copyright 1996)


From Manuscript to Metal Type

Long before movable type was invented, craftsmen produced books which were laboriously copied by pen and brush. But the process of printing from engraved wood blocks was well known. Those who inked these engravings and imprinted them, using a wine-press type of device, were called pressmen. They often imprinted sheets of parchment with illustrations and decorative initial letters. These pre-printed parchments were filled out with hand-lettering by the scribes. Those who assembled the manuscripts and encased them in leather bindings were called bookbinders. Therefore, even before movable type made high-production possible, there was a division of labor between pressmen, scribes and bookbinders.

The shakeup began with the invention of movable metal type—by a German watchmaker by the name of Johann Gutenberg (nee Gensfleisch)—introducing a revolutionary new technology, a new and inexpensive method of producing books. Skilled in working with brass, Gutenberg designed a process to engrave an individual letter onto a brass matrix and then use this mold to cast type with a special lead alloy, which he also perfected. Until that time, printing was very rudimentary and tedious; words and illustrations were either carved into wood blocks or inscribed on stone. It was quicker by far to hand-letter pages of a book, as did the church scribes.

With this new process, individual letters in pieces of metal could be assembled into words, sentences and pages. The composed type was then inked and impressed on paper. Instead of a scribe laboriously creating one copy of information, a printer could create thousands of copies in the same amount of time. He could also do it at an infinitely lower cost per volume. Books were suddenly available to the public, not just church scholars.

Shortly after Gutenberg’s invention, printing plants proliferated all over Europe. Although many tried to keep the process a secret, they were singularly unsuccessful. Churches and monasteries lost their monopoly over book production rather quickly as newly trained workers left their employ to start their own print shops. Within decades, printed books became commonplace. Type founders designed new type faces and found no lack of enthusiastic buyers for their type fonts. Shortly after the Americas were discovered, printing offices flourished there. It’s interesting to note that one of the first thing printers in America did was to form unions, the first in the New World. Unlike the European guilds, the American printing unions tended to exclude employers from their ranks.

The new concept of printing involved many intricate steps: casting type, composing individual characters into pages, pulling the press handle to make an impression from the type, and finally binding the finished product. Printing artisans drew upon a deep reservoir of accumulated knowledge, skills, and "tricks of the trade." Thus, quite correctly, printers proudly referred to their craft as the "art preservative of all arts." Just as an artist learns from observing techniques of other artists, the art of printing was passed along from journeyman to apprentice by demonstrating techniques and secrets of the trade. These secrets were jealously guarded over the centuries, with guild and union printers swearing an oath that their craft be kept secret from outsiders.

Apprentice printers, called devils back then, learned to manipulate type and arrange it into eye-pleasing combinations through verbal instructions from a journeyman or a master printer. They discovered which type designs were appropriate to a particular project or "job" by imitating the experts and by experimenting on their own. Sometimes they needed to know how to operate a printing press, mix inks, bind books and other skills involved in the total process. Even when printers worked exclusively with type, a knowledge of the entire process was essential.

Ironically, very little of this information was passed along by way of the printed word. Tradition, customs and techniques were orally transmitted, not printed. Newcomers to the trade listened and imitated as older workers handed down knowledge that began accumulating in the late 1400s.

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Pages by John Howells and Marion Dearman, authors of "Tramp Printers"
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