22 June, 2007

Fallen and threaded types

During the hand press period, when type was inked with leather balls stuffed with wool, the sticky ink could pull sorts from the forme if it had not been firmly locked up. Sometimes they fell back and left an impression on the printed sheet.

The value of such examples, which survive when both the printer and the binder failed to discard the spoiled sheet, is that they provide a record of the size and shape of the ‘fallen types’. In the first edition of his History of the old English letter foundries (1887), T. B. Reed showed one that had been found for him by Henry Bradshaw at the University Library in Cambridge, from a work probably printed at Cologne in about 1468, Liber de laudibus ac festis gloriosae Virginis (Inc. A.4.9 [525], f. 14v).

Reed’s relief line illustration, which was practically redrawn from a softly-lit photograph, gives little idea of the original. The image of the same fallen type shown above was made for me in 1994 as a 35 mm slide by the photographers at the University Library, and it is so good that it seems useful to show it more widely here. (I do so with the kind permission of the University Library.) It shows how the type, squeezed into the damped paper, has left a sharp impression of its side. Among its interesting features are the flat base (with no ‘feet’), and a very sharply-outlined circular indentation that looks as if it was made by a hole in the type. Some other examples of ‘fallen types’ seem to show holes in them too: one of the earliest reports, from a book printed in Cologne in 1476, had been published by the French bibliographer J. P. A. Madden, and this image too was reproduced in his original edition by Reed.

These observations of pierced types encourage an interesting line of speculation.

In about 1868 some old types were found in Lyon on the bed of the River Saône near the old printing quarter of the town. Most of them are now in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris. How early they are is not easy to say, but to judge from their face some at least may be of the late 15th century. A catalogue of the collection by Maurice Audin was published by the Bibliothèque nationale in 1955, and he wrote an illustrated article on the types in Gutenberg-Jahrbuch 1954. Many of them show odd features, such as an oblique cut-off at the foot, which has led to speculation that the mould in which they were cast did not produce the central detachable ‘jet’ which would later provide type with stable ‘feet’ and a standard height. A few of the sorts (notably types 188 and 189 in Audin’s catalogue) have a circular hole right through them.

There are some stories about surviving examples of early types which had holes in them and which had been designed to be threaded together. Some were of wood. The stories appear quite late, in the middle of the 16th century, with an account by Theodore Bibliander or Buchmann, Zürich, 1548; but however confused they are and however unlikely their attribution to the first printers may seem to be, the accounts seem to have been based on different surviving examples and are not easy to dismiss completely. Reed brought the sources for them together on page 4 of his history.

In any case there is independent evidence that at one time it may have been the practice to make holes in types. One of the tools acquired by the monastic press at Ripoli, near Florence, in 1477 was a drill for piercing type – uno trapano per forar lettere (Melissa Conway, The Diario of the printing press of San Jacopo di Ripoli 1476–1484: commentary and transcription. Firenze: Olschki, 1999, p. 108). Neil Harris, in a recent article of which details appear below, cites an essay by Angela Nuovo of 1998 which notes among the materials of a printer, sold in Ferrara in 1477, 85 pounds of ‘types with holes made in them’ (lettere bucade).

One of the most interesting examples of printing from type that may possibly have been threaded or wired – although this just one guess made in an attempt to explain some puzzling observations – is the Catholicon, and some other books printed with the same type. The first printing of the Catholicon, a late medieval encyclopedia, is undated and has no printer’s name, but there is good reason to believe that it was printed in Mainz in the 1460s. Its enigmatic colophon has led to the belief that it may have been printed by Gutenberg during the period after he lost his possession of the materials with which the 42-line Bible was printed. It is a folio with the text in two columns, and its use of different paper stocks, which are allied to small changes to the text, suggests that there were successive reprints from what was essentially the same setting of type.

In 1982 Paul Needham, discussing the evidence for the reprinting of the text, added his own observation that the book was printed from two-line units, which in successive impressions could be seen to shift slightly from side to side. Moreover, when damage to type was repaired or a textual alteration was made, the two-line unit was wholly reset. Needham suggested that the whole book had probably been printed from castings that he called two-line ‘slugs’, using the term that had been introduced for the solid cast lines of the Linotype machine. (‘Johann Gutenberg and the Catholicon Press’, Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, vol. 76, pp. 395–456.)

My own contribution to the debate was to try look for an explanation that did not require one to think of Gutenberg as the inventor of a 15th-century Linotype, and it occurred to me that lines of type that were pierced and tied together with thread or wire might offer an alternative.

Could you thread a single line of type and tie it together? Not easily, since the result is unstable. But two lines tied together make a solid unit. (The practical experiment is not difficult, and there is no need to pierce holes since modern type has a nick which makes a space for the thread or wire to pass through.) Looking at the Catholicon, observers have noticed that on some leaves there are blind impressions of what seems to be wire – quite a lot of wire. And in one of the smaller publications printed in Eltvil from the same type the cause of a thin, sharp white line which crosses a whole page obliquely may have been a piece of loose wire that lay on the forme.

My hypothesis was included by Lotte Hellinga in her own contribution to a debate about the dates of the successive impressions of the Catholicon which ran through several issues of Gutenberg-Jahrbuch. The details of that debate are not relevant here, except to note that it was common ground between the parties to it that the type of the text was kept together for reprinting. In such a case, having the lines held together, whether tied up or as cast slugs, would have usefully helped to preserve them from falling apart between impressions.

Paul Needham did not take readily to my suggestion, and objected that if the lines were merely wired up, the type could easily be reset and there would have been no need to replace whole two-line units whenever a minor alteration was made. Perhaps. But his cast slugs are no less tentative a conjecture. Experience shows that when type is kept standing for some time and is not well rinsed after cleaning, the ink that is dissolved seeps down between the letters and solidifies them. The type becomes ‘baked’, and ‘it is very difficult to separate and distribute, and causes great loss of time and injury to the letter.’ (William Savage, Dictionary of the art of printing. London, 1841, s. v. ‘bake’.) For a text that was to be kept solid for months or even years, ‘baked type’ would have had positive advantages. And if any change to the text was needed, resetting the whole two-line unit would have been quicker and easier than trying to get the baked type apart. Keeping a whole text set in type standing safely between impressions posed formidable problems, especially the text of a long book of which the typeset pages would weigh several tons. But before the common use of stereotyping, and where the text was likely to have a steady sale, the investment in such big founts of type might have seemed justified. The printing office of an orphanage at Halle is said to have printed a Bible from standing type in the early years of the 18th century, and Christopher Sower (Sauer), Germantown, and Matthew Carey, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Isaiah Thomas, Worcester, Massachusetts, did the same later in the century.

We shall never be wholly certain about so many details of the technique of early printing, but the sight of an impression of a ‘fallen type’ often has an immediacy that carries us closer to the world of workers in a real printing-office, mostly doing their job well but sometimes having accidents.

A survey of some examples of ‘fallen types’ was made by Victor Scholderer in an essay on ‘The shape of early type’ in Gutenberg-Jahrbuch 1927. He noted that several of them seem to be pierced by holes, and he repeated Madden’s rather facile objection to the suggestion that the holes were designed for passing thread through them, namely that if the type had been threaded it would not have been pulled from the forme. Well no, obviously it would not. But perhaps during the first half century of so of printing, during the infancy of typefounding, the pulling of type from the forme was more likely: there is a faint image of a fallen piece of type in one copy of the 42-line Bible. And so the practice of piercing type and threading it may have been introduced – who knows when or how widely? – to deal with the nuisance. Eventually the labour of threading must have begun to seem so tiresome a task that it was given up, even by printers with pierced type, who began to take the risk that some sorts would be pulled out and fall on the forme.

Such accidents were not unknown in later centuries. The writer of an 18th-century Spanish manual for writers and compositors remarked at the start of his ‘Fe de errores’ that when the printer spotted what had happened and tried to push the type back where it might have come from this probably created not one but two errors in the text, since as likely as not the type was pushed back in the wrong place. And, since ink was stiffer when it was cold, printed texts were more liable to such errors in winter than in summer. (Joseph Blasi, Epítome de la orthographia Castellana, con los elementos de la typographia y un modo de enseñar de leer bien. Barcelona, 1751.)

A thorough survey of the literature of fallen types was made by Neil Harris in the notes to his article in Gutenberg-Jahrbuch 2003, pp. 22-30, which examines the impression of an unidentified fallen object (hence UFO), perhaps a type, on the forme of a book of the late 15th century: (‘A mysterious UFO in the Venetian “Dama Rovenza” [c. 1482]’). Some recently discovered fallen types, pierced in a manner very similar to the example at the University Library, Cambridge at the head of this post, are described in the University of Reading Ph.D. thesis of Claire Bolton, ‘The Fifteenth-Century printing practices of Johann Zainer, Ulm, 1473–1478’, 2008.

The image below, from the Italian dictionary of printing by G. I. Arneudo, Dizionario esegetico tecnico e storico per le arti grafiche (Torino, 1917), art. ‘fori’, p. 776, is a fanciful reconstruction, but not an implausible one.

The first fallen type?
In 1900, in an paper with the title ‘Untersuchungen zur Geschichte des ersten Buchdruckes’ in the Festschrift zur Gutenberg-Feier produced to commemorate the the five-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Gutenberg, Paul Schwenke published this tantalisingly faint image of the mark of a fallen type in the copy of the 42-line Bible at Pelplin, Poland. It is the only published image that I have been able to locate, but I believe that a facsimile of this copy has been made, and perhaps it has a better image of the fallen type.

Last edited 7 January 2012