The Persistance of Handpress Printing, and the Concentration of Scholarly Research and Collecting on Books and Printing Produced on the Handpress

Most books on the history of printing and college courses on the history of printing concentrate on handpress printing. As extensively documented in HistoryofInformation, handpress printing has a long history, from its invention by Johannes Gutenberg in the mid-15th century, persisting today in a world dominated by offset and digital printing as an art form pursued by hobbyists and by teachers in courses on the history of print media in schools that own handpress printing equipment. Indeed manufacture and use of the iron handpress continued through the 19th century long after the development of printing machines beginning in 1810. When he founded the Kelmscott Press in 1891, in reaction to the development of mass media printed on printing machines, William Morris had no problem purchasing a London-built iron Hopkinson & Cope Improved Albion Press (No. 6551) built that very year. Throughout the 19th century it was typical of large scale printers such as William Clowes in London to operate machine rooms in which they employed machine managers to run printing machines typically powered by steam engines, and press rooms in which they employed traditional pressmen to print on handpresses. Very gradually large scale book printers eliminated their hand presses, or kept one around for proofing or the occasional printing of a few copies of a broadside or announcement.

With the development of printing machines that speeded up production, by the 1830s in England and America, and increasingly throughout Europe and more gradually throughout the rest of the world, far more copies of newspapers and books were printed on printing machines powered by steam engines than could ever have been issued by handpress printing. One result of the implementation of mechanized presses is that from about 1830 onward there are more surviving printed works of all kinds printed by printing machines than those printed on a handpress. But in spite of this, the focus of scholars and students of the history of printing, and the focus of collectors of the history of printing, tends to be on the technology of handpress printing rather than on the development and technology of printing machines. Similarly there is more scholarly concentration on printing technologies involved with handpress productions, such as  hand papermaking, manual typesetting, and hand bookbinding rather than the development of machine-made paper, typesetting machinery and bookbindings produced by machinery. From the aesthetic point of view some might argue that the quality of books printed on a handpress on handmade paper and handbound is often superior aesthetically to machine-made books. And no one would argue that deluxe handprinted editions have qualities that cannot be exactly duplicated by mass production. Instead mass produced books have a different aesthetic. If mass production caused a loss of handcrafted quality it provided very significant advantages in affordability and the ability to distribute information to increasingly wider audiences. Inevitably mass production also produced, and continues to produce, some publications of exceptional aesthetic quality. The development of mass production of printed matter is a topic that I trace in the theme Book Production in the Industrial Revolution: Origins of Mass Media.

The long-standing concentration on scholarship on printing in the handpress period and its products, and the comparative neglect of the history of mechanized book production and its history, is beginning to change as a result of the development of personal computers, the Internet, and eBooks. If my experience and interests are any example, our constant use of computers and software in our daily life, and the rapid changes in the development of media as a result of the Internet, may cause those of us interested in the history of media to approach the history of printing and book production from the viewpoint of the more complex technology of today's world rather than the comparatively simple technology of printing before the development of printing machines. By the time I began studying and collecting the development of mechanized mass-produced books around ten years ago, I was steeped in the handpress period. That had been the area of my focus since I first read Sigfrid Steinberg's Five Hundred Years of Printing in the 1960s, but as I developed HistoryofInformation as a database on the history of media from the earliest period to the present I recognized that there were so many significant developments in book production from the Industrial Revolution onward, and that some of these developments could be documented, and collected as well. To me, the invention of the papermaking machine and the steam-powered press, and the early development of mechanized book production, are as significant for the history of books and printing as the early history of handpress printing in the 15th century.

When I began studying and collecting the development of mechanized book production I found that there were few models on which to base a collection. Primarily the collection had to be pieced together from various references in portions of the history that had been studied by historians, but many of its elements were what turned up when searching for relevant material. As I developed the collection I began posting selected items in the Book Production in the Industrial Revolution theme in HistoryofInformation. Readers who are interested in this topic may view examples of the history that I have posted so far by accessing that theme. Frequently when I describe an item I cite the relevant scholarly reference on the item if I am aware of such scholarship. One of the major issues in collecting the early history of mechanized book production is that publications issued using printing machines were generally not identified as such. This is especially true of publications typeset on the many experimental mechanical typesetting machines developed in the 19th century, and it is nearly always true of bookbindings made using various bookbinding machines in the 19th century. Like many topics in the history of books and media, the early history of mechanized printing and the books and printed matter produced by machinery remains a mostly unexplored field of study.

Jeremy M. Norman
December 1, 2020