The History of Printing

For the Occupations Section this month we look at the printing industry and its development from woodblock to computers together with a look at its associated trades and occupations. All the illustrations are from "The Penny Magazine", contributed by Roger in Sussex.

Early history to late 1700s

The woodblock technique, one of the earliest forms of printing on textiles, originated in East Asia and China, with surviving examples dating from before 220 AD. The text, images and patterns were cut as a mirror image into a block of wood, inked, then pressed down onto the surface of the cloth to form the print.

It wasn’t until the 1300s that the technique arrived in Christian Europe and was initially used to print on textiles, producing items such as those used for religious purposes.

However, as paper became more easily available in the 1400s, printing on paper became popular and large numbers of prints began to be produced.

Books which had traditionally been hand written manuscripts, were by the mid 1400s, being produced by the woodblock method and called woodcut books or block books, with text and images carved into the same block.

The movable type technique of printing originated in China in around 1040 AD, however, it was the German goldsmith, Johannes Gutenberg, who invented the ‘Gutenberg’ printing press in around 1439, which revolutionised communication and book production leading to the spread of knowledge.

Moveable type is the system of printing and typography using movable pieces of metal type arranged by a compositor, with a piece for each character. Compared to woodblock printing, movable type pagesetting was quicker, more durable, and the lettering more uniform, leading to typography and fonts.

The high quality and relatively low price of the Gutenberg Bible in 1455, established the superiority of movable type, and the use of his printing press rapidly spread across Europe and the rest of the world. Today, practically all movable type printing ultimately derives from Gutenberg's movable type printing press, and it is seen as one of the most important inventions in history.

Gutenberg was the first to make his type from an alloy of lead, tin, and antimony, known as 'type metal', 'printer's lead', or 'printer's metal'. It was critical for producing durable type that produced high-quality printed books, and proved to be more suitable for printing than the clay, wooden or bronze types originally used in China.

He also introduced the use of oil-based ink, more durable than previously used water-based ones, and published the first coloured prints.

William Caxton, an English merchant, travelled to Europe in the course of his business in the mid to late 1400s, and it was in Germany that he first observed Gutenberg’s printing press. He first set up a press in Bruges, producing the first book in English in 1473. Three years later he brought the new technology to England, setting up his first printing press in Westminster, London, in 1476.

Caxton produced chivalric romances, classical authored works and English and Roman histories, which were poplar amongst the upper classes and nobility. He translated a large amount of works into English, a language which at the time was littered with many different styles and dialects. Through his work he is credited with standardising the English language.

However, as the printed page was becoming more widely available to the population there was unease amongst Caxton’s critics, who were concerned that the poor would become aware and enlightened as to their circumstances and thus become dissatisfied and aggrieved, leading to civil unrest. Caxton ignored these concerns and only saw the benefit of this new technology for the greater good.

It was William Caxton’s apprentice, Wynkyn de Worde, who set up the first printing shop in Fleet Street in around 1500. Around the same time Richard Pynson set up as a publisher and printer nearby. More printers and publishers followed, mainly supplying the legal trade in the area. In March 1702, the world's first daily newspaper, The Daily Courant, was published in Fleet Street from premises above the White Hart Inn. The area remained the centre of newspaper production until the 1980s, when they moved out to Wapping and Canary Wharf.

St Bride's Church just off the eastern end of Fleet Street, remains the London church most associated with printing, and the nearby St Bride Library specialises in the type and print industry.

At the beginning of the 17th century the right to print was strictly controlled in England, so the first newspaper in English was, in fact, printed in Amsterdam around 1620. As the century progressed there were many kinds of publication which related both news and rumours. Amongst these were pamphlets, posters and ballads. Even when the news periodicals emerged, many of these coexisted with them.

The English Civil War escalated the demand for news, with news pamphlets reporting the war, supporting one side or the other. More publications followed the Restoration, including the Oxford Gazette and London Gazette, which were both first published in 1665.

By 1720 there were twelve London newspapers and twenty-four in the provinces.

The early printing houses from the 1400s were run by ‘master printers’, who owned the printing shops, selected and edited manuscripts, determined the sizes of print runs, sold the works they produced, raised capital and organised distribution.

The printer’s apprentice was usually between 15 and 20 years of age and was not required to be literate, as the majority of the population could not read or write. They prepared ink, dampened sheets of paper, and assisted at the press. An apprentice who wanted to work as a compositor had to learn Latin and spend time under the supervision of a master.

The printer’s apprentice was more commonly known as a ‘printer’s devil’, because his hands would often be stained with printer’s ink, and, with black being associated with the devil, they therefore gained the name.

Journeyman printers were those who had completed their apprenticeship and were free to move to other employers.

The 'pressman' operated the printing press by hand, a job which was physically labour intensive.

Publishing trade organisations, such as the Stationers’ Company allowed publishers to collectively organise business concerns, self-regulate and deal with with labour unrest, as well as implementing copyright.


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