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The Ho7G Blog

House of the Seven Gables: History and Memory and Forgetting

Love in the Time of Stereotype Plates

 a set of metal types.  Wikicommons. 

a set of metal types. Wikicommons. 

This is probably going to be hard for you to imagine. It might take some effort for you to wrap your brain around. What it used to be like to make books. What it used to take just to print the pages contained in a book.

Before the coming of the age of the stereotype plates. And how stereotype changed book publishing.

In my first blog post in this series, you became intrigued with the idea that books are social objects made by people using other objects. In the second, I mentioned that Ticknor, Reed, and Fields made the decision to create a set of stereotype plates when they made their first printing of The House of the Seven Gables.

This turned out to be a wise decision for the firm. From this one set of plates, the publisher printed its next 19 printings of the novel without the need to invest new capital in type or typesetting.

But what exactly were these mysterious stereotyped plates? How were they created?  And how did they help printers like Ticknor, Reed, and Fields?

In order to answer these questions, we must dip our feet ever so slightly and gently into the fascinating field of The History of the Book - a distinct field of study somewhere between history, literature, and material culture studies.

Before stereotype plates were introduced in the United States in 1813, books were made largely the same way they had been made since the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg around 1450. Even at the time of the American Revolution, the process of book-making was a laborious one, divided amongst multiple vendors.

These vendors would usually be local, but any or all of the materials were quite often imported.  Paper and binding materials were usually manufactured in Europe, where a relatively large reading public had existed for centuries before such markets developed in the British Colonies in North America. Inks could come from virtually anywhere, including the Far East (mostly China, which had for centuries been synonymous with the highest quality inks, ceramics, and textiles).

To start the printing process, an individual (let’s call them a publisher - this might be the printer, the author, or a church or government) who wanted something printed would hire, naturally, a printer. The printer would discuss various options with the publisher - the size of the pages, the quality of paper, the type of ink, and font style and size. The printer probably stocked inks but may have required the publisher to purchase the paper up-front.

After printing, sheets would be folded into the form of pamphlets or books. For books, the pages were sent to a binder, and this was another separate stage of the process. The binder provided the service of sewing the pages together into paper, leather, or cloth casings. These casings, or jackets - the front and back covers, which fold along the spine into which all the pages are sewn - were usually produced by separate vendors entirely.  

If this process sounds somewhat overwhelming, then you’re starting to grasp the complexities and challenges of book manufacturing in the early United States. And that is before we’ve grappled with the issue of type.

As you may have noticed, a printer did not have to inventory most of the materials that we think of when we think about making a book, such as paper or binding materials. These components were warehoused and supplied by outside vendors. In this respect, the printer could keep a relatively low overhead. However, the main components of book-making inventoried by printers are ones we do not think about. And they were both heavy and expensive.

 Two People in Olden Times Operate A Printing Press. Woodcut. 1568. By Jost Amman - Meggs, Philip B. A History of Graphic Design. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 1998. (p 64), Public Domain. Wikicommons.

Two People in Olden Times Operate A Printing Press. Woodcut. 1568. By Jost Amman - Meggs, Philip B. A History of Graphic Design. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 1998. (p 64), Public Domain. Wikicommons.

One of these components was the printing press itself. Printing was time-consuming, its technology constantly advancing. But in all of its manifestations, printing presses produced pages by compressing inked plates against sheets of paper. At the time of the American Revolution, the presses were operated manually. It was typically a two-man job, with one man responsible for changing the plates, brushing them with ink, and inserting paper, and the other pulling down levers to produce the immense force requisite to push the ink into the paper.

By Hawthorne’s time, steam technology had obviated this manual labor and significantly increased the number of pages that could be produced each day. The House of the Seven Gables, in fact, was printed on a state-of-the-art rotary steam press. Instead of individual sheets, the rotary press prints from rolls of paper, making it a lot faster.

Beyond the printing press, the primary overhead investment for a printer might lay in the type itself - small, rectangular pieces of metal terminating in reversed and relief images of the letters that would make up the words on a page. Type was actually one of the most expensive elements of book-making. A printer would need to inventory numerous different kinds of type - serif and sans-serif, bold and italic, in various fonts. The pieces of type themselves were quite costly, cast by specialized type foundries which in turn had the very high overhead costs of maintaining almost myriad type matrices for the limited number of printers in their region.

 Moveable type used on Hawaii's first printing printing press at the Hale Pa'i Printing Museum at Lahainaluna. Maui, Hawaii. Kaleomokuokanalu Chock, 2017.  Flickr.

Moveable type used on Hawaii's first printing printing press at the Hale Pa'i Printing Museum at Lahainaluna. Maui, Hawaii. Kaleomokuokanalu Chock, 2017. Flickr.

Beyond the printing press, the primary overhead investment for a printer might lay in the type itself - small, rectangular pieces of metal terminating in reversed and relief images of the letters that would make up the words on a page. Type was actually one of the most expensive elements of book-making. A printer would need to inventory numerous different kinds of type - serif and sans-serif, bold and italic, in various fonts. The pieces of type themselves were quite costly, cast by specialized type foundries which in turn had the very high overhead costs of maintaining almost myriad type matrices for the limited number of printers in their region.

In 1866 there were only three type foundries in Boston. And that was a lot. There was only one in Baltimore, and there were none in Richmond, VA, recently the capital of the Confederate States of America.

But besides being expensive to manufacture and for the printer to purchase, type was costly because it had to be arranged by hand. The kind of type used by printers before stereotype was called moveable type because it was ordered and reordered every time a printer wanted to print a new page of a book or pamphlet.

Pick up a copy of the book next to you, page through it, and imagine every letter of that book being manually constructed from pieces of moveable type and space-holders. Imagine every letter in a large wooden box divided into possibly 100 smaller boxes. The small boxes held not just letter but punctuation marks, spacers, and bold and italic versions of the letter. A typesetter would have taken out each letter and ordered them into a (reverse) mirror image of the page before you, then placed and secured it in the press.

Think about how, after pressing six or eight pages on one big sheet of paper, the page of type would be returned to the typesetter. The typesetter methodically placed each letter back in their assigned spot in the sorting box. Only then did he carefully reorder the type as a new page, constantly referencing a manuscript or original printed page to produce an accurate copy.

Moveable type required enormous labor costs from specialized workers who could scan a page (often a hand-written manuscript) and engineer the pages by recreating an inverse design of the final page. This means they had to set up the words backward. Even the best typesetters made mistakes, resulting in inconsistent quality and legibility of printed sheets which may need to be reprinted.

And in the process of setting page after page, moveable type could get dropped, scratched, stepped on, or stolen by bad kittens - requiring more investment by the printer simply to maintain their stocks.

Stereotype plates solved many of these costly inefficiencies by casting an entire page of type at a time.  Stereotype plates were introduced in the United States around 1813. For stereotype, pages were assembled as usual by the typesetter. But instead of being used for printing, the typeset was then heavily oiled, and covered with plaster of paris to make a mould. The mould was baked for hardness, and then molten metal was poured into it to produce a duplicate of the typeset in a single plate of metal. After cutting and leveling, the stereotype plate could be used for printing. It was then simply reshelved until a new printing of the plates was in demand, permitting reprints without the need to reset type.

     Koenig 's 1814 steam-powered printing press. By User:Parhamr - Meggs, Philip B. A History of Graphic Design. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 1998. (p 132),  Public Domain.

 

Koenig's 1814 steam-powered printing press. By User:Parhamr - Meggs, Philip B. A History of Graphic Design. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 1998. (p 132), Public Domain.

In 1866 there were only three type foundries in Boston. And that was a lot. There was only one in Baltimore, and there were none in Richmond, VA, recently the capital of the Confederate States of America.

But besides being expensive to manufacture and for the printer to purchase, type was costly because it had to be arranged by hand. The kind of type used by printers before stereotype was called moveable type because it was ordered and reordered every time a printer wanted to print a new page of a book or pamphlet.

Pick up a copy of the book next to you, page through it, and imagine every letter of that book being manually constructed from pieces of moveable type and space-holders. Imagine every letter in a large wooden box divided into possibly 100 smaller boxes. The small boxes held not just letter but punctuation marks, spacers, and bold and italic versions of the letter. A typesetter would have taken out each letter and ordered them into a (reverse) mirror image of the page before you, then placed and secured it in the press.

Think about how, after pressing six or eight pages on one big sheet of paper, the page of type would be returned to the typesetter. The typesetter methodically placed each letter back in their assigned spot in the sorting box. Only then did he carefully reorder the type as a new page, constantly referencing a manuscript or original printed page to produce accurate copy.

Moveable type required enormous labor costs from specialized workers who could scan a page (often a hand-written manuscript) and engineer the pages by recreating an inverse design of the final page. This means they had to set up the words backwards. Even the best typesetters made mistakes, resulting in inconsistent quality and legibility of printed sheets which may need to be reprinted.

And in the process of setting page after page, moveable type could get dropped, scratched, stepped on, or stolen by bad kittens - requiring more investment by the printer simply to maintain their stocks.

Stereotype plates solved many of these costly inefficiencies by casting an entire page of type at a time.  Stereotype plates were introduced in the United States around 1813. For stereotype, pages were assembled as usual by the typesetter. But instead of being used for printing, the typeset was then heavily oiled, and covered with plaster of paris to make a mould. The mould was baked for hardness, and then molten metal was poured into it to produce a duplicate of the typeset in a single plate of metal. After cutting and leveling, the stereotype plate could be used for printing. It was then simply reshelved until a new printing of the plates was in demand, permitting reprints without the need to reset type.

 A stereotype plate being made. By Deutsche Fotothek‎, CC BY-SA 3.0 de.  Wikicommons.

A stereotype plate being made. By Deutsche Fotothek‎, CC BY-SA 3.0 de. Wikicommons.

Stereotype plates required a greater initial investment for a book than moveable type. But for books that a printer anticipated would be in constant demand, stereotype plates eliminated the need to recompose the pages, page by page, for each new printing. Stereotype plates, if cast in multiples, would allow a printer to print more than one copy of a book at a time on different presses. It allowed a printer to produce the same exact book, over and over and over, while reducing the amount of moveable type that would need to be on hand.

In a way, the print technology of stereotype plates also put more power in the hands of the publisher. For books to be printed in moveable type, a publisher faced the rising costs of typesetting labor and type casting. But once in stereotype plates, publishers already owned a full set of already-cast type. They could transfer their printing needs from printer to printer, knowing that the quality of their finished product would not suffer due to the possibility of inexperienced typesetters or a poorly maintained set of type. It became less costly for a publisher to keep a book in print, meaning authors like Hawthorne were more likely to sell more books than if their works were not stereotyped.

Owning the stereotype plates gave publishers the ability to transfer all of these advantages to another publisher in the event that they had to close shop or, as in the case of Ticknor and Fields, they consolidated their business with another publisher.

The story of the transfer of the stereotype plates from Ticknor and Fields to future publishers is a fascinating story itself, one that influenced future editions of the House of the Seven Gables - but that is the subject of another day, and another exciting blogpost at the LoveInTheHouseOfSevenGables Project.

According to Ticknor and Fields’ cost-books, the firm paid “Hobart & Robbins, New England Type and Stereotype Foundry” $268 to set the original type and then stereotype plates for the first printing of The House of the Seven Gables. This amounts to roughly $8,000 in 2018 U.S. Dollars. And it might seem like a lot. But remember that these stereotype plates held up through 19 printings of the novel - or about 17,000 copies, between 1851, the date of original publication, and 1886, when the publisher finally retired them. Each of these editions sold for about $1.00. So by 1886, the publisher, which through various states of consolidation had become Houghton Mifflin, had grossed about $17,000 from that initial $268 investment.

Through nineteen printings, these durable stereotype plates were even flexible enough to create multi-volume editions of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s works. These would be called “The Illustrated Library Edition,” “The Fireside Edition,” and “The Globe Edition” - all of which remain in circulation among rare book collectors, libraries, and archives today.

And it is these editions, dear reader, that will serve as the focus of our next blog in this series. Until then, keep reading! Find an old book to hold!

There is so much beauty that awaits you. We have such sights to show you.

Clay ZubaComment