Books and Printing and Mormons. Part 6.

Up until about a century ago, type was set (composed) by hand. This was an art. The type had to be set as the mirror image of the desired document for obvious geometrical reasons.

Type was kept in shallow wooden trays, usually two trays for each font. One for lower case letters (minuscules) and one for upper case letters (majuscules). Naturally there had to be many examples of each letter. It would not do, for instance, to have only one “e”! The minuscule tray had letters arranged, not in alphabetical order, but in order of frequency of use. This ordering developed fairly rapidly and apprentices came to appreciate the usefulness of the time-tested patterns. Majuscules were used much less frequently and so were arranged in (nearly) alphabetical order.[1] The strategy in both cases was to reduce movement and increase speed of composition.

With a manuscript before him, the compositor pulled type pieces from the trays, placing the type in a “stick” with an adjustable length corresponding to the desired measure. The type might be assembled upside down, so that the compositor could work from left to right, flattening the learning curve a bit for a shop boy. Naturally, the font had to include “spacing” pieces to create intelligible breaks between words and allow for ease of justifying line ends. Spacing sorts came in different sizes so that as the line neared completion, the compositor could space the words in a way that appeared natural but give uniform appearance. A lead was placed next and then another line. After gathering several lines of text, the compositor slid the type onto the compositing table, often a large flat piece of marble. In a newspaper, for instance, spacing esthetics were secondary to cramming as many words as possible into a line. Hence, one might encounter shrinking leads and even smaller fonts as an article progressed.

When enough pages were set to print a sheet, the chase — a rectangular frame — was placed around the type on the table. Wooden blocks (furniture) and metal wedges (quoins) were used to stabilize and lock the type within the frame. The resulting assembly is called the forme. Occasionally (as parts became worn perhaps or the compositor became tired or inattentive) as the forme was transferred to the press, the type might come loose, creating a terrible mess.

If the press was the very common horizontal flatbed kind,

A Smith Press . For more examples, go to

A Smith Press (the Book of Mormon was printed on a Smith–how’s that for coincidence?). For more examples, go to

the forme was placed on a horizontal plate or bed and secured. The type was inked, perhaps using large “pillows” dipped in ink and then pressed on the type. A sheet was placed over the forme and the assembly was slid under the platen, a flat piece of metal or wood with a screw mechanism on top, allowing the platen to be pressed onto the sheet, pressing the sheet onto the inked type (hence the title, letterpress printing). The platen was raised, the bed slid out from under the platen, and the sheet removed and laid over a drying rack, the process being repeated with another sheet until the required number of sheets were printed to complete the run. In small shops especially, an author might participate in the printing process and this meant proofing on the spot during printing. If errors were found, the type might be reset on the table in the middle of a run, perhaps several times. Sheets were generally not wasted because of this, barring gross error (homeotelutons, say). Thus, a print run for a large book might contain many versions reflecting authorial intent. Each sheet was printed on both sides, with perhaps two (folio — there’s that word again), four (quarto) or eight (octavo) pages set on each side.

Next: more on sheets.

[1] The “nearly” refers to the letters U and J which were relative newcomers to printing.

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

  1. J. Stapley says:

    Does this usage of letterpress relate to what seems to me the fairly common term “letterpress copybook”?

  2. WVS says:

    Closely related in fact. A freshly penned letter was pressed between the pages of a blank book with thin leaves, slightly dampened so that ink of a certain kind was impressed on the back of the thin leaf (so the ink on the verso could be seen when looking at the recto). A press was used much like one illustrated above, smaller of course.

  3. J. Stapley says:

    Fascinating. I had no idea. But that explains a lot. Thanks.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: