Books and Printing and Mormons. Part 7.

Paper, was a product of Chinese invention. The process was driven by human labor of course and didn’t become machine powered until water mills came on line in Medieval times. Making paper requires a material base consisting of suitable fibers. Water provides the ability to defuse the material through mechanical action like pounding it with wooden or metal tools. The resulting slurry can be spread over a draining screen and when dry, paper results.

The fiber was often taken from the inner bark of trees together with recycled materials like cotton cloth. Not until the year of Joseph Smith’s death was the process modified so that recycled materials became obsolete. That year saw the introduction of sawdust, making wood pulp paper. Still, one sees “rag content” as a badge of honor in paper sales. But Newsprint operations loved the wood pulp methods: it was cheap and became cheaper as technology made the process unbelievably quick.

During Joseph Smith’s life, paper was made in sheets of various sizes. The Book of Mormon manuscript was written on sheets of foolscap folio. The first edition of the Book of Mormon was printed in duodecimo form. Each sheet made a gathering or signature by folding it four times. The original book had about 25 gatherings. Since there were 5,000 copies of the Book of Mormon under contract with E. B. Grandin, this suggests that the whole operation required approximately 125,000 sheets. This also means each leaf measured roughly 5″ x 7 3/8″. Grandin purchased a new set of pica font for the book, but it was not a large enough set to avoid disassembly of each forme, replacement of the type in each tray and then reassembly of a new forme. To speed things up, the original compositor, John Gilbert, received some assistance in the grueling work. Two compositors working together made reference to the manuscript difficult. Hence, at least some printing manuscript pages survive in two pieces. Each compositor had his half.

Page 8 on the left. Front matter consisted of 4 pages.

Page 8 on the left, showing the center of the gathering. Front matter consisted of 4 pages, making a total of 12, a suggestion of the 12mo format. Font style? I don’t know. Scotch?


Similar methods were deployed in church printing through Joseph Smith’s lifetime. One ingenious modification of the process involved making a casting of the forme. A paper mache-like material was pressed onto a forme and when dry, used as a mold for hot lead alloy creating a copy of the forme. The result was “stereotype plates.” These were portable, durable representations of the forme created by a compositor just once for many subsequent printings. For small jobs like broadsides, or non-repeated printings like newspapers, plates made no economic sense, so compositors were still in demand. On the other hand, plates were versatile in their way. They could be edited to some extent, by cutting and “welding.”[1]

Next time: the church press.

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[1] And this (plate modification) actually applies to nearly all of Joseph Smith’s known sermons.

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6 Responses to Books and Printing and Mormons. Part 7.

  1. J. Stapley says:

    Where did the Nauvoo-era stereotype plates end out?

  2. There are a lot of references to stereotyping in the BY correspondence, and this post prompted me to run a search. The most interesting (to me) reference that turned up was in an 1853 letter from Orson Pratt to Brigham Young: “I have not altered the fictitious names in the book of Covenants for the original ones, as it would interfere too much with the stereotype plates.” Just think — if he *had* been able to alter those names that early, we’d have missed out on one of the gloriously mysterious quirks of Mormonism!

    The only Nauvoo-era reference I have, in case it supplements what WVS has, is a 13 January 1845 plea from Parley P. Pratt in New York to Brigham Young in Nauvoo: “Please Either authorise me to publish them both here as your agent and forward the Stereotype Plates of the D.C. or else publish them there in sufficient quantities to supply us.” (PPP is referring to the Doctrine and Covenants and to a hymnal.)

    • WVS says:

      Cool stuff, Ardis. Thanks. It’s not completely clear that Orson *could* have translated all the names in any case.

      • J. Stapley says:

        I thought that he had access to Manuscript Revelation Book 1, no? I forget when he made the comments about the sample of pure language.

  3. WVS says:

    Ebenezer Robinson owned them because JS couldn’t come up with $200.00. After going with Rigdon, he went RLDS (and for a few years, Whitmerite). Maybe the plates survived him in RLDS hands? Shout out to Robin Jensen on this one, I guess.

  4. WVS says:

    Did he have access to RB1? Even Phelps gets confused about it. But I’m away from data.

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