Examples of the Cultural Prominence of Handpress and Mechanized Printing in the Nineteenth Century

In the early 19th century, before the invention of telephone, radio, and television, when the only computers were people, and the only faster method of communication over long distance was by telegraph, other than by gossip or by letter, or by actual education in a school, the medium for the transfer of information available to most people was print. As printed mass media developed, and costs of inexpensive printed media declined, the demand for inexpensive newspapers and magazines, and for inexpensive books and pamphlets, was mainly restricted by the limited numbers of most populations who could read. One of my goals in HistoryofInformation remains documenting the transition from book and newspaper production as essentially a handcraft before 1800 to the development of mass media with the spread of comparatively inexpensive printed matter produced by people operating machinery, generally at lower cost. Along with the technologies to produce less expensive printed matter, and the development of railroads to deliver them faster and over longer distances, reducing the cost of printed matter also contributed to the spread of literacy. It is generally understood that the mechanization of papermaking, the development of printing machines, and bookbinding machines, and eventually the successful mechanization of typesetting, would not have occurred without a concommitant growth of literacy to increase the market for larger editions produced at lower cost. Each of these factors—transportation, education and literacy, as well as telecommunications, is traced with a Theme in HistoryofInformation, and the interrelationships between them, and the amount of documentation on this website in perhaps a thousand entries or more, would suggest that the full story of these factors during the nineteenth century would necessarily be the subject of long books rather than this very short essay.

Instead what I would like to draw attention to here is the surprising amount of printed media coverage that I am finding about the development of the mechanization of elements of printing and book production within print media itself. Most probably one should not be surprised by this. When print media was essentially the only medium for communication besides letters and gossip, it is not surprising that writers would discuss new developments in printing and book production much as various media discuss new developments in computing and the Internet today. What has surprised me, I guess, is the frequent recognition of the technological and social implications of the new mass media by writers on the topic from virtually the beginning of the advances in printing and book production resulting from the Industrial Revolution. Throughout the Book Production in the Industrial Revolution theme in HistoryofInformation I cite and usually quote examples of this. The tautology here is that without this recognition of novelty stated within most of these publications themselves we might not know of the particular landmark reflected in some of those publications. Obvious examples are minor publications like the first book printed from stereotype plates made in America. This very minor book, The Larger Catechism Agreed Upon by the Assembly of Divines at Westminster (New York, 1813) brags on its title page that it was "The first book ever stereotyped in America." Nine years earlier, printer Andrew Wilson's edition of the translation of Freylinghausen's An Abstract of the Whole Doctrine of the Christian Religion (London, 1804) advertised on its title page that it was "The first book stereotyped by the new process." In that case, Wilson, who worked for Lord Stanhope, the inventor of the "new process" of stereotyping, issued the book in the first step of a publishing program to promote the new process of stereotyping. What Wilson did not say was that the book was also the first book printed on Lord Stanhope's revolutionary new iron handpress, and also that the book was the first book printed on machine-made paper. Wilson and Stanhope may have selected this relatively obscure title for their first venture because, as reported later, "the translator was Queen Charlotte, consort of George III, and the editor of the volume was Beilby Porteus, Bishop of London. The Rev. Philip Bliss states that he had seen the original MS. in Her Majesty's handwriting." By 1829, if not earlier, the London publisher and writer Charles Knight, in association with the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, was exploiting the new printing technology to produce larger editions of cheaper quality publications, culminating in the launch of The Penny Magazine on March 31, 1832. This was the first successful large circulation magazine, with a circulation for a period of time as high as 200,000 copies per week. Knight was a great proselytizer of the new book production technology and publisher of low quality cheaper publications, but he issued more expensive publications as well.

Besides early examples like this, or examples in newspapers or periodicals that I have documented in HistoryofInformation, a few examples stand out as illustrations of the cultural prominence of printing in the 19th century. One is the sheer number of publications from a wide variety of cities issued to commemorate the Quatercentenary of Gutenberg in 1840. Colin Clair tabulated 143 memorial volumes; however, I would not be surprised if the actual number of publications was higher. The commemorations included parades of printers as in Stuttgart, in which a simplified model of Gutenberg's press was pulled by a team of horses. Other examples include public demonstrations of printing from presses pulled by horses during processions. Processions of that nature occurred in Boston in 1856 and in New York in 1858. The handpress and printing machine pulled by a powerful team of horses on a car in New York as part of a parade honoring the completion of the Atlantic Cable, was illustrated in Frank Lesle's Illustrated Newspaper. Besides these, demonstrations of advanced mechanized presses were often exhibited in public exhibitions. A prominent example of this were the sheets of the Illustrated London News printed on Augustus Applegath's Vertical Printing Machine at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851. Another example was the Caxton Celebration held in London in 1877 to commemorate the introduction of printing in England. This was probably the largest exhibition on the history of printing ever held, and the variety of publications issued to commemorate it was remarkable, culminating in the Caxton Memorial Bible printed and bound within only 12 hours as an example of the enormous progress made in printing technology during the 19th century.

When time permits I intend to cite more examples here of the examples of the cultural prominence of handpress and mechanized printing and book production in the 19th century.  Many others are already recorded in HistoryofInformation.

Jeremy M. Norman
December 3, 2020