4406 entries. 94 themes. Last updated December 26, 2016.

The Caxton Quadricentennial Celebration: Probably the Largest Exhibition on the History of Printing Ever Held; Collecting its Publications (June 30 – September 1, 1877)


In the summer of 1877, four hundred years after printer William Caxton published The Dictes or Sayengis of the Philosophres, the first book printed in England, the Caxton Celebration opened in the western International Exhibition Galleries on the Queen's road side of the Horticultural Society's Gardens at South Kensington in London. The exhibition was organized by its Chairman, typefounder and politician Sir Charles Reed, by large scale industrial printer William Clowes, by mathematician and physicist from a family of major printers, William Spottiswoode, by printer, biographer and bibliographer of Caxton and rare book collector, William Blades, and various committees. Two hundred or more people participated in some way as patrons or members of committees, representing a "who's who" of the printing industry in England and Europe at the time, along with leading scientists, scholars, librarians and collectors. A few Americans such as printing machine designer and builder Richard M. Hoe were also involved in committees. The exhibition was open for two months, from June 30 to September 1, 1877. According to David McKitterick, Old Books, New Technologies  (2013, p. 175) the exhibition "attracted a reported 23,684 visitors" —an impressive number considering the population size and literacy levels of the time.

Planning for the exhibition, of course, started many months before it opened, and publicity was extensive. The illustrated newspaper, The Pictorial World in their issue of February 24, 1877, reported on a preliminary meeting of planners, including Sir Charles Reed and W. Spottswoode, held in the Jerusalem Chamber of Westminster Abbey, a published an engraving showing 12 mostly bearded men sitting around a table, including a secretary taking notes. Publicity for the show eventually seems to have included marketing to children, or at least to parents who read to children. It is hard to imagine how such incentives would have any appeal to children, or their parents, in the second decade of the 21st century:

"Maclise's celebrated painting of Caxton showing the first specimen of his printing to Edward IV had been painted twenty years earlier, and when it was engraved in 1858 it was in the possession of John Forster (d. 1876). In 1877 it was on loan from its new owner, Lord Lytton, to the South Kensington Museum. The central part of the engraving was reissued in April 1877, as a contribution to the festivities. Reproductions were available at reduced prices to readers of Young Folks and Young Folk's Weekly Budget. As the original copies of the steel engraving had cost 4 guineas and upwards, the special offer price of a shilling plus vouchers from the magazines was a considerable bargain" (David McKitterick, Old Books, New Technologies [2013] 170-71.)

In their issue of June 30, 1877, the opening day of the exhibition, the British illustrated weekly newspaper, The Graphic, published a double-page image captioned "The Caxton Celebration. William Caxton Showing Specimens of His Printing to King Edward IV and His Queen." In their issue of July 1, 1877 The Illustrated London News published a collection of images related to the exhibition called "Caxtoniana." The same newspaper in their issue of July 7 (p. 18) published an article on the opening of exhibition and on p. 17 a large image captioned, "Mr. Gladstone at the Caxton Memorial Exhibition, South Kensington, on Saturday Last." The image showed Prime Minister Gladstone watching printing done on a "Gutenberg-style" hand-press. The Illustrated London News described the opening ceremony of the exhibition as follows:

"The opening ceremony was brief and simple. The leading part was borne by the Right Hon. W. E. Gladstone. He was met by Sir Charles Reed, chairman of the committee; Mr. W. Blades, the biographer of Caxton; and the other gentlemen we have named, with the Archbishop of York. A large assembly of ladies and gentlemen filled the rooms assigned for this ceremony, as well as the adjacent galleries. After a special dedicatory prayer offered by the Archbishop, Sir Charles Reed read a short statement of the occasion and the objects of the Exhibition. Mr. Hodson, secetary to the Printers' Pension Corporation, handed to Mr. Gladstone a copy of the Exhibition Catalogue. The right hon. gentleman then declared the Exhibition to be opened. This formal declaration was immediately hailed by a flourish of trumpets from the band of the Royal Horse Guards Blue. Mr. Gladstone was conducted through the exhibition, which he examined with attentive interest. Our Illustration shows him looking at the working of an old press. There was a luncheon provided by the Conservatory of the Horticultural Society's Gardens. The chair was occupied by Mr. Gladstone, at whose right hand sat his Majesty the Emperor of Brazil, but the Emperor left the table before the toasts were proposed. His Majesty's health was, of course, duly honoured next to that of our Queen and Royal family. In his principal speech, giving the memory of William Caxton for the chief toast, Mr. Gladstone commented upon the invention of printing, with his usual copiousness of thought and knowledge, and expressed his admiration of the results now attained. The other speakers were the Bishop of Bath and Wells; Dr. Joseph Parker; Mr. Hall, of the Oxford University Press; M. Chaix, of Paris; Herr Fröbel, of Stuttgart; Sir C. Reed, and Mr. G. Spottiswoode. Subscriptions and donations to the Printers' Pension Corporation fund were announced, amounting to £2000, besides which there will be the receipts from the Exhibition." 

The Tablet, The International Catholic News Weekly, took an interest in the exhibition, reviewing it on pp. 7-8 of its issue dated July 28, 1877. An Irish novelist, Catherine Mary MacSorley, commemorated the anniversary by publishing an historical novel for young people about Caxton entitled The Earl-Printer. A Tale of the Time of Caxton (London, 1877).

As a record of the exhibition, a catalogue was edited by George Bullen (1816-94) Keeper of the Printed Books at the British Museum, entitled Caxton Celebration, 1877. Catalogue of the Loan Collection of Antiquities, Curiosities, and Appliances Connected with the Art of Printing. In its final form this 472 page book listed, sometimes with descriptive bibliographical notes, a total of 4734 items exhibited, making this probably the largest exhibition of rare books, prints, and printing equipment ever held. It encompassed works from the Gutenberg Bible and the Mainz Psalter up to 1877, including about 190 Caxtons, classics illustrating the spread of printing, landmarks of book illustration, examples of music printing, books on papermaking, notable achievements in color printing, examples of historic, unusual or new technologies in printing, as well as printing presses and typesetting and typefounding equipment. Notably, the catalogue contained no images. Presumably it was a sufficient challenge just to publish a non-illustrated bibliographical record of such an enormous exhibition, crediting the numerous lenders to the show.

I first learned about this exhibition when, out of curiosity, I happened to order a copy of the catalogue online, probably in 2010. When I skimmed through the catalogue, the size and extent of the exhibition amazed me. Then I noticed that there seemed to be different versions of the catalogue available, so I began to collect as many different ones as I could. Collecting about and around this exhibition in 2011 and 2012 allowed me to reconstruct some of the history of the exhibition, and the strangely complex publication of this exhibition catalogue. By June 2012 I identified 8 editions or states:

(1) During the early days of the exhibition a small number of preliminary "Rough Proof" copies of the catalogue were available. (This version I have not seen.) Also available for one shilling was a 32-page pamphlet written by William Blades entitled A Guide to the Objects of Chief Interest in the Loan Collection of the Caxton Celebration, Queen's Gate, South Kensington. (This I have not seen.)

(2) A bit later during the exhibition a "Preliminary Issue" with 404pp. and 10 leaves of advertisements was issued in pale blue printed wrappers for sale at 1s. This version, which was called "Preliminary Issue" on both its printed wrapper and title page, listed 4633 entries. In it Class C was entitled "The Comparative Development of the Art of Printing in England and Foreign Countries Illustrated by Specimens of the Holy Scriptures and Liturgies." The number of entries in Class C ended at 1351, leaving a gap of 100 items between the next entry in the catalogue, No. 1451 beginning "Class D, Specimens Noticeable for Rarity or for Beauty and Excellence of Typography." This indicates that the cataloguing of Class C was incomplete at the time the Preliminary Issue was printed.

(3) Later during the exhibition a version with 456pp and 11 leaves of advertisements was issued. My copy of this is bound in original brown cloth, edges untrimmed. It lists 4734 entries. In this version pp. xiv-xviii were reset to allow the addition of several names to various committees. Also the entire Class C was substantially rewritten and expanded, which required resetting numerous pages. In this version Class C is headed "The History of Printing Illustrated by the Printed Bible, 1450-1877, By Henry Stevens." A new gathering  M*was inserted, between gatherings M and N, its pages numbered 176a to 176q, bringing the Bibles catalogued up to No. 1450, and the Liturgies numbered 1450a-1450θ. Since  Henry Stevens's introduction to Class C is dated July 25, 1877 we may presume that this version came out either very late in July or during August. 

(4) Virtually at the end of the exhibition a "Revised Edition" of the catalogue was issued in tan printed wrappers, containing 472 pages and 11 leaves of advertisements at the back. The designation "Revised Edition" appeared only on the upper printed wrapper, and not the title page. This was priced 2s. 6d. My copy of this version bears the inscription of George William Reid, Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, who, according to Bullen's Introduction (p. xi), catalogued the various woodcuts, copper-plates and other engravings in Class G of the exhibition. Reid's inscription is dated September 1877. Without the printed wrappers the different versions can be determined by the number of pages. It is evident that many or all gatherings were reprinted for this edition in which the entries were renumbered in one series with continuous pagination.

(5) After the exhibition 157 hand-numbered large-paper copies of the revised edition with 472pp. were available on "superfine toned hand-made paper," edges untrimmed in a special original brown cloth binding for 1 guinea, and

(6) 12 hand-numbered copies were available on extra large, thick hand-made paper at the cost of 5 guineas, likewise in an original brown cloth binding, edges untrimmed. No copies of  (5) or (6) that I have seen had wrappers or ads. (Remarkably, I was able to acquire two of the twelve extra large paper copies issued.)

(7)  After the exhibition some of the copies of the catalogue printed on regular paper were bound in cloth for sale. I have a copy bound in original green cloth, edges trimmed, without ads.

(8) I also have a copy bound in original red cloth, edges trimmed, stamped "PRESENTATION COPY" on the upper cover with an inscription to British Museum Librarian, G. W. Porter, from J. S. Hodson, Honorary Secretary of the Executive Committee dated November 17, 1877. This copy contains 2 leaves of ads at the back. In his introduction to the catalogue George Bullen credits Hodson, who was Secretary of the "Printers' Pension, Almshouse and Orphan Asylum Corporation," for "having originated this celebration," the proceeds of which went to support the Printers charities that Hodson managed.

The most extensive section in the exhibition, and also the most extensively annotated portion of the catalogue, was "Class C, The History of Printing Illustrated by the Printed Bible, 1450-1877" by the American bibliographer and antiquarian bookseller Henry Stevens who lived in London. Stevens ran into conflicts with the organizers of the exhibition, who were concerned that Stevens's extensive exhibition and detailed cataloguing was unduly prominent. They may also have been irritated that some of Stevens's extensive cataloguing was not finished until the middle of show. At the end of his introduction to Class C Stevens, whose extensive bibliography proves that he clearly enjoyed writing, indicated that he would publish a revised edition of his portion of the catalogue after the show. This he duly published as an unillustrated 151 page book in 1878 under the following verbose title:

The Bibles in the Caxton Exhibition MDCCCLXXVII or a bibliographical description of nearly one thousand representative Bibles in various languages chronologically arranged from the first Bible printed by Gutenberg in 1450-1456 to the last Bible printed at the Oxford University Press the 30th June 1877. With an Introduction on the History of Printing as Illustrated by the printed Bible from 1450 to 1877 in which is told for the first time the true history and mystery of the Coverdale Bible of 1535 Together with bibliographical notes and collations of many rare Bibles in various languages and divers versions printed during the last four centuries.  

This book Stevens issued both as an octavo trade edition on ordinary paper and clothbound, and on large paper printed on Whatman hand-made paper. Large paper copies were advertised for 15s in a half-roan binding or in red morocco extra by Bedford for £4.4s.  My copy of the large paper edition is in an original green cloth binding matching the binding of the trade edition, and comes from the library of Henry Frowde of Oxford University Press, who became Publisher of the press in 1880. In his book Stevens explained that his efforts were the culmination of 30 years of work on Bible bibliography. Stevens began his book with an essay entitled "The Flavour." This was largely in response to a review of his Bible exhibition published in The Saturday Review on August 17, 1877—the last of five reviews of the Caxton exhibition published in that journal. Stevens evidently felt so highly his essay that he had it published separately as a pamphlet in printed wrappers.[ This I did learn about until I found a copy in February 2016.]  For the exhibition Stevens borrowed Bibles from sources including the British Museum, the Bodleian, Queen Victoria, Earl Spencer, the Earl of Leicester, Francis Fry, the Signet Library and its librarian, David Laing of Edinburgh, and Henry J. Atkinson of Gunnersbury House in Middlesex.

The Caxton Memorial Bible as a Demonstration of Progress in Book Production Since Caxton's Time

At the instigation of Henry Stevens, Henry Frowde of Oxford University Press undertook the publication of a Bible that would demonstrate the advances in printing technology since its introduction in England by Caxton. By Stevens's account this was a last minute idea of Stevens undertaken by the press only a few days before opening of the exhibition. The Bible was printed on machine presses at Oxford by Oxford University Press, and bound by Oxford University Press in London in an edition of 100 numbered copies, with the printing and binding occurring in only twelve hours on the opening day of the exhibition, June 30, 1877. Printing began at 2:00 AM on June 30, and the first bound copies were delivered at the opening of the exhibition at 2:00 PM on the same day. Copy No.2 was presented to Gladstone when he opened the show, copy No. 1 having been reserved for Her Majesty the Queen. In March 1878 Stevens published a small 30-page book (page size 115 x 85 mm) entitled The History of the Caxton Memorial Bible printed and bound in twelve consecutive hours on June 30, 1877. In this book Stevens told the story of this remarkable achievement in which copies of the 1052-page volume were printed from standing type on paper specially made for the edition by Oxford University Press only a few days before printing. The printed sheets were artificially dried and hand-bound in turkey morocco by 101 binders assigned to the task. Stevens calculated that had type composition been necessary it would have taken "2000 compositors and 200 readers to set up and properly read the Bible in these same twelve hours." (In 1877, about a decade before the invention of the Linotype and Monotype, there was no widely used method of machine composition.) It was agreed that all copies of the Memorial Bible would be presented and none would be sold, and that copy No. 1, and every third number, would be allotted by Oxford University Press, that copy No. 2 and every third number thereafter would be allotted by Henry Stevens, and that every third number thereafter would be allotted by the Delegates of the University Press and the Dons of Oxford.

In October 2014 I was able to purchase a copy of the Caxton Memorial Bible—certainly the highlight of my Caxton Celebration collection. The page size of the volume is 160 x 110 mm. It is bound in full black crushed morocco, raised bands on the spine and tooled in gold on the spine "The Caxton Memorial Bible. Oxford, June 30th 1877." The edges are gilt. On the upper cover is stamped the arms of Oxford University. On the turn-in below the front pastedown endpaper is stamped in gold "Bound at the Oxford University Binding Establishment in London on this 30th day of June 1877." Facing the title page is printed "Wholly printed and bound in twelve hours, on this 30th day of June, 1877, for the Caxton Celebration. Only 100 copies were printed, of which this is No. 20." Beneath this is handwritten "Allotted to William Amhurst Tyssen-Amherst Esq. M. P. by Henry N. Stevens 24 May 1889." Lord Amherst was a distinguished collector of books, manuscripts and Egyptian antiquities. As the allotment to Amherst occurred twelve years after publication it is evident that Stevens held onto at least one copy for more than a decade after the exhibition. Stevens crossed out the printed word "Presented" and replaced it with "alloted." The title page of the Bible states at its head "[In Memoriam Gul. Caxton.] and at its foot "Minion 16mo. June 30, 1877. Cum Privilegio." At the foot of the first page of each of the 32 gatherings that comprise the book is printed "The Oxford Caxton Celebration Edition, 1877." My copy is enclosed in a full black straight-grained morocco pull-off case labeled in the same typeface as is stamped on the spine of the Bible. Inside the slipcase "No 20" is stamped in gold. All the copies were bound identically and presented in this way. 

In comparison with the speed of papermaking, printing and binding in Caxton's time the speed of production of the Caxton Memorial Bible represented an enormous advance, so great that it would be difficult to quantify, and it is evident that the producers of the Caxton Memorial Bible were very proud of these advances. What would have taken perhaps a year or more in Caxton's time for the paper to be made by hand, for the typesetting to be done by hand, for the printing to be done on a handpress, and for the binding to be done by hand, was accomplished in less than a day. Particularly in the 15th century type was a scarce and very expensive commodity so no printer could have kept more than a few formes before they would have to be run through the press, and the type reused to print the next formes, but by the 19th century large printers such as Oxford University Press kept many standard works in standing type even though they could use stereotype plates instead.  If we compare the speed of completion of these hundred Caxton Memorial Bibles with 21st century printing technology it is probable that the papermaking and printing could be done as rapidly or perhaps even faster than what was achieved on June 30, 1877. However, I doubt if in the 21st century 101 hand binders capable of binding the volumes as rapidly and enclosing them in the elaborate pull-off slipcase could be found and organized to do the task without exceptionally elaborate and time-consuming preparation-maybe years of training. To achieve anywhere near this speed of production of such an elaborate binding and slipcase the work would have to be done by machine.

For enclosure with the Bible Stevens had a special version of his History of the Caxton Memorial Bible produced on very thin paper and bound in brown moire silk over very thin boards. In this Stevens repeated the autograph inscription that he wrote in the Bible, and he added Lord Amherst's name to the list of recipients of copies printed at the back of his small book. The edition is so thin that it fits in the slipcase with the Bible. My copy of the regular edition is printed on relatively thick laid paper, and in its binding of blind-stamped and gilt calf over boards is roughly five times as thick as the thin paper version.

The Roles of William Blades and Talbot Baines Reed

The remarkable exhibition of rare books on the history of printing and typography described in the exhibition catalogue for the Caxton Celebration was loaned in its entirety by William Blades, who also catalogued all the Caxtons and other early English printed books in the exhibition. Blades was also a collector of medals relating to the history of printing and hoped to have a medal struck commemorating the 1877 celebration. For the purpose he issued a prospectus with a reproduction of the proposed design; however, there were insufficient subscribers, and the medal is known only from the prospectus, the design from which was reproduced by Henry Morris in his introduction to the 2001 facsimile reprint of Bigmore & Wyman.

The superb exhibition of type specimens in the show was curated by writer, typefounder, historian of type foundries, and son of Sir Charles Reed, Talbot Baines Reed

♦ One of the more unusual Caxton Celebration items I collected is an 8-page 4to pamphlet entitled Caxton Celebration June 1877. A Biographical Notice of William Caxton The First English Printer Reprinted from the "Leisure Hour" for May, 1877 in Phonetic Spelling with a Specimen page of Caxton's Type and Woodcuts. This pamphlet, with an introduction by Isaac Pitman dated May 29, 1877, was issued by Fred. Pitman in London and offered for sale at the price of one penny, presumably at the exhibition. In his lengthy introduction Issac Pitman referred to the Elementary Education Act of 1870, requiring education of children in England and Wales, and took the opportunity to promote phonetic spelling as a way of simplifying British education and improving national literacy. In a footnote he wrote: "The Educational Blue Book for 1875-6 gives the following statistics:- 2,221,745 children were presented for examination. Of this number, 19,349 (or less than one per cent.) reached Standard VI :- and 53,587 (3 1/2 per cent, including the previous number) reached Standard V, which a pupil must pass before he is permited to leave school under 13 years of age."

Other publications issued in connection with the exhibition were a new edition of William Blades's The Biography and Typography of William Caxton England's First Printer (1877; first published 1861), William Caxton, the First English Printer. A Biography by printer and publisher Charles Knight (1877). This was a new edition of a work previously issued in 1844; on its upper printed wrapper the printers stated that it was "Printed and Presented to the Caxton Celebration by William Clowes and Sons." Also published in 1877 was a 47-page pamphlet entitled, Who Was William Caxton? by "R[owland] H [ill] B[lades]", brother of William Blades. This was intended to fill a need for an inexpensive, relatively brief account of Caxton. In March 2016 I came across a reference to still another publication produced for the exhibition: A Short History of the Art of Printing in England by Arthur. C. J. Powell. Issued as a Supplement to the Printers' Register, in commoration of the Four Hundredth Anniversary of the Introduction of Printing into England. London: Joseph M. Powell, "Printers' Register" Office, 1877. This was a well-illustrated 66-page article.  An unusual aspect was the advertisment facing the title page in which the publisher, Joseph M. Powell, Type Broker, and Manufacturer of Printing Materials, offered to supply a "Small Printing Office complete for £115."

There were two elaborate publications associated with the exhibition:

1. A facsimile of Caxton's The Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers. A Facsimile Reproduction of the First Book Printed in England by William Caxton in 1477. This facsimile, printed in two-color photolithography, included an introduction by William Blades printed by letterpress. The volume was offered for sale by the London publisher Elliot Stock in 1877 at the price of one guinea bound in a heavy coated paper binding over boards, and blindstamped very effectively to resemble a blind-stamped calf binding of the 15th century.

2. A facsimile limited to 257 signed copies, with woodcuts printed from the "original woodblocks" entitled New Biblia Pauperum Being Thirty-Eight Woodcuts Illustrating the Life, Parables & Miracles of Our Blessed Lord & Saviour Jesus Christ, with the Proper Descriptions thereof, extracted from the Translation of the New Testament, by John Wiclif, Sometime Rector of Lutterworth. This was issued from London, "Printed at the Sign of The Grasshopper," by Unwin Brothers, The Gresham Press, 1877. The edition was bound in blind-stamped drab boards, copying a design taken from an early block book in the British Museum, with two brass catches and clasps. The work seems to have been a kind of hodge-podge in that the original woodblocks, which dated sometime between 1470-1540, were purchased by the Unwin brothers, and used to illustrate the facsimile text of John Wycliffe's New Testament of 1525, which was printed in Caxton Type No. 2. At the time it was unknown what work these woodblocks originally illustrated. as they were not "recognized as belonging to any printed book." The publishers intended the facsimile to supply two markets: interest in Caxton's printing stimulated by the 1877 Caxton Celebration, and the Wycliffe quincentenary of 1377, which occurred the same year. 

Thinking about this celebration in 2016, one of the most unusual elements that I found in my web researches, was a parallel Caxton celebratiion exhibition held in Montreal also in 1877, just a few days before the celebration occurred in London. That this parallel exhibition was held may be explained by the fact that Canada was a self-governing entity within the British Empire at the time. A 35-page pamphlet about that exhibition, published by La Bureau de La Revue de Montreal, was entitled Célébration du quatrième anniversaire séculaire de l'établissement de l'imprimerie en Angleterre par Caxton: revue de l'exposition de livres, manuscrits, médailles, etc., tenue sous les auspices de la Société des antiquaires et des numismates de Montréal : discours de MM. Dawson, Chauveau, White et MayThe actual catalogue of the Canadian exhibition, which remarkably included over 2000 items, was entitled Condensed Catalogue of Manuscripts, Books and Engravings on Exhibition at the Caxton Celebration, Held under the Auspices of the Numismatic and Antiquarian Society of Montreal, at the Mechanics' Hall on the 26th, 27th, 28th and 29th June 1877, in Commemoration of the 400th Anniversary of the Introduction of Printing into England. Montreal: Printed at the "Gazette" Printing House, 1877.

The first historical account of the exhibition was written by one of its key organizers, James Shirley Hodson, and published as Chapter X of his History of the Printing Trade Charities (London, 1883). Bigmore & Wyman, A Bibliography of Printing I (1880-84) 124-26. Twyman, Early Lithographed Books (1990) 258. 

(This entry was last revised on 03-25-2016.)