A history of the old english letter founderies with notes

Talbot Bainers Reed

London

Elliot Stock, 62, Paternoster Row, E.C.

1887

Introductory Chapter The Types and Typefounding of the First Printers

For four centuries the noise of controversy has raged round the cradle of Typography. Volumes have been written, lives have been spent, fortunes have been wasted, communities have been stirred, societies have been organised, a literature has been developed, to find an answer to the famous triple question: “When, where, and by whom was found out the unspeakably useful art of printing books?” And yet the world to-day is little nearer a finite answer to the question than it was when Ulric Zel indited his memorable narrative to the Cologne Chronicle in 1499. Indeed, the dust of battle has added to, rather than diminished, the mysterious clouds which envelope the problem, and we are tempted to seek refuge in an agnosticism which almost refuses to believe that printing ever had an inventor.

It would be neither suitable nor profitable to encumber an investigation of that part of the History of Typography which relates to the types and type-making of the fifteenth century by any attempt to discuss the vexed question of the Invention of the Art. The man who invented Typography was doubtless the man who invented movable types. Where the one is discovered, we have also found the other. But, meanwhile, it is possible to avail ourselves of whatever evidence exists as to the nature of the types he and his successors used, and as to the methods by which those types were produced, and possibly to {2} arrive at some conclusions respecting the earliest practices of the Art of Typefounding in the land and in the age in which it first saw the light.

No one has done more to clear the way for a free investigation of all questions relating to the origin of printing than Dr. Van der Linde, in his able essay, The Haarlem Legend,1 which, while disposing ruthlessly of the fiction of Coster’s invention, lays down the important principle, too often neglected by writers on the subject, that the essence of Typography consists in the mobility of the types, and that, therefore, it is not a development of the long practised art of printing from fixed blocks, but an entirely distinct invention.

The principle is so important, and Dr. Van der Linde’s words are so emphatic, that we make no apology for quoting them:―

“I cannot repeat often enough that, when we speak of Typography and its invention, nothing is meant, or rather nothing must be meant, but printing with loose (separate, moveable) types (be they letters, musical notes, or other figures), which therefore, in distinction from letters cut on wooden or metal plates, may be put together or separated according to inclination. One thing therefore is certain: he who did not invent printing with moveable types, did, as far as Typography goes, invent nothing. What material was used first of all in this invention; of what metal the first letters, the patrices (engraved punches) and matrices were made; by whom and when the leaden matrices and brass patrices were replaced by brass matrices and steel patrices; . . . . . all this belongs to the secondary question of the technical execution of the principal idea: multiplication of books by means of multiplication of letters, multiplication of letters by means of their durability, and repeated use of the same letters, i.e., by means of the independence (looseness) of each individual letter (moveableness).”—P. 19.

If this principle be adopted—and we can hardly imagine it questioned—it will be obvious that a large class of works which usually occupy a prominent place in inquiries into the origin of Printing, have but slight bearing on the history of Typography. The block books of the fifteenth century had little direct connection with the art that followed and eclipsed them.2 In the one respect of marking the early use of printing for the instruction of mankind, the block books and the first works of Typography proper claim an equal interest; but, as regards their mechanical production, the one feature they possess in common is a quality shared also by the playing-cards, pictures, seals, stamps, {3} brands, and all the other applications of the principle of impression which had existed in one form or another from time immemorial.

It is reasonable to suppose that the first idea of movable type may have been suggested to the mind of the inventor by a study of the works of a xylographic printer, and an observation of the cumbrous and wearisome method by which his books were produced. The toil involved in first painfully tracing the characters and figures, reversed, on the wood, then of engraving them, and, finally, of printing them with the frotton, would appear—in the case, at any rate, of the small school-books, for the production of which this process was largely resorted to—scarcely less tedious than copying the required number by the deft pen of a scribe. And even if, at a later period, the bookmakers so far facilitated their labours as to write their text in the ordinary manner on prepared paper, or with prepared ink, and so transfer their copy, after the manner of the Chinese, on to the wood, the labour expended in proportion to the result, and the uselessness of the blocks when once their work was done, would doubtless impress an inventive genius with a sense of dissatisfaction and impatience. We can imagine him examining the first page of an Abecedarium, on which would be engraved, in three lines, with a clear space between each character, the letters of the alphabet, and speculating, as Cicero had speculated centuries before,3 on the possibilities presented by the combination in indefinite variety of those twenty-five symbols. Being a practical man as well as a theorist, we may suppose he would attempt to experiment on the little wood block in his hand, and by sawing off first the lines, and then some of the letters in the lines, attempt to arrange his little types into a few short words. A momentous experiment, and fraught with the greatest revolution the world has ever known!


No question has aroused more interest, or excited keener discussion in the history of printing, than that of the use of movable wooden types as a first stage in the passage from Xylography to Typography. Those who write on the affirmative side of the question profess to see in the earlier typographical works, as well as in the historical statements handed down by the old authorities, the {4} clearest evidence that wooden types were used, and that several of the most famous works of the first printers were executed by their means.

As regards the latter source of their confidence, it is at least remarkable that no single writer of the fifteenth century makes the slightest allusion to the use of wooden types. Indeed, it was not till Bibliander, in 1548,4 first mentioned and described them, that anything professing to be a record on the subject existed. “First they cut their letters,” he says, “on wood blocks the size of an entire page, but because the labour and cost of that way was so great, they devised movable wooden types, perforated and joined one to the other by a thread.”

The legend, once started, found no lack of sponsors, and the typographical histories of the sixteenth century and onward abound with testimonies confirmatory more or less of Bibliander’s statement. Of these testimonies, those only are worthy of attention which profess to be based on actual inspection of the alleged perforated wooden types. Specklin5 (who died in 1589) asserts that he saw some of these relics at Strasburg. Angelo Roccha,6 in 1591, vouches for the existence of similar letters (though he does not say whether wood or metal) at Venice. Paulus Pater,7 in 1710, stated that he had once seen some belonging to Fust at Mentz; Bodman, as late as 1781, saw the same types in a worm-eaten condition at Mentz; while Fischer,8 in 1802, stated that these precious relics were used as a sort of token of honour to be bestowed on worthy apprentices on the occasion of their finishing their term.

This testimony proves nothing beyond the fact that at Strasburg, Venice, and Mentz there existed at some time or other certain perforated wooden types which tradition ascribed to the first printers. But on the question whether any book was ever printed with such type, it is wholly inconclusive. It is possible to believe that certain early printers, uninitiated into the mystery of the punch and matrix, may have attempted to cut themselves wooden types, which, when they proved untractable under the press, they perforated and strung together in lines; {5} but it is beyond credit that any such rude experiment ever resulted in the production of a work like the Speculum.

It is true that many writers have asserted it was so. Fournier, a practical typographer, insists upon it from the fact that the letters vary among themselves in a manner which would not be the case had they been cast from a matrix in a mould. But, to be consistent, Fournier is compelled (as Bernard points out) to postpone the use of cast type till after the Gutenberg Bible and Mentz Psalter, both of which works display the same irregularities. And as the latest edition of the Psalter, printed in the old types, appeared in 1516, it would be necessary to suppose that movable wood type was in vogue up to that date. No one has yet demonstrated, or attempted seriously to demonstrate, the possibility of printing a book like the Speculum in movable wooden type. All the experiments hitherto made, even by the most ardent supporters of the theory, have been woful failures. Laborde9 admits that to cut the 3,000 separate letters required for the Letters of Indulgence, engraved by him, would cost 450 francs; and even he, with the aid of modern tools to cut up his wooden cubes, can only show four widely spaced lines. Wetter10 shows a page printed from perforated and threaded wooden types11; but these, though of large size, only prove by their {6} “naughty caprioles” the absurdity of supposing that the “unleaded” Speculum, a quarternion of which would require 40,000 distinct letters, could have been produced in 1440 by a method which even the modern cutting and modern presswork of 1836 failed to adapt to a single page of large-sized print.

John Enschedé, the famous Haarlem typefounder, though a strong adherent to the Coster legend, was compelled to admit the practical impossibility, in his day at any rate, of producing a single wood type which would stand the test of being mathematically square; nor would it be possible to square it after being cut. “No engraver,” he remarks, “is able to cut separate letters in wood in such a manner that they retain their quadrature (for that is the main thing of the line in type-casting).”12 Admitting for a moment that some printer may have succeeded in putting together a page of these wooden types, without the aid of leads, into a chase: how can it be supposed that after their exposure to the warping influences of the sloppy ink and tight pressure during the impression, they could ever have survived to be distributed and recomposed into another forme?13

The claims set up on behalf of movable wood types as the means by which the Speculum or any other of the earliest books was printed, are not only historically unsupported, but the whole weight of practical evidence rejects them.

Dismissing them, therefore, from our consideration, a new theory confronts us, which at first blush seems to supply, if not a more probable, certainly a more possible, stepping-stone between Xylography and Typography. We refer to what Meerman, the great champion of this theory, calls the “sculpto-fusi” {7} characters: types, that is, the shanks of which have been cast in a quadrilateral mould, and the “faces” engraved by hand afterwards.

Meerman and those who agree with him engage a large array of testimony on their side. In the reference of Celtis, in 1502, to Mentz as the city “quæ prima sculpsit solidos ære characteres,” they see a clear confirmation of their theory; as also in the frequent recurrence of the same word “sculptus” in the colophons of the early printers. Meerman, indeed, goes so far as to ingeniously explain the famous account of the invention given by Trithemius in 1514,14 in the light of his theory, to mean that, after the rejection of the first wooden types, “the inventors found out a method of casting the bodies only (fundendi formas) of all the letters of the Latin alphabet from what they called matrices, on which they cut the face of each letter; and from the same kind of matrices a method was in time discovered of casting the complete letters (æneos sive stanneos characteres) of sufficient hardness for the pressure they had to bear, which letters before—that is, when the bodies only were cast—they were obliged to cut.”15

After this bold flight of translation, it is not surprising to find that Meerman claims that the Speculum was printed in “sculpto-fusi” types, although in the one page of which he gives a facsimile there are nearly 1,700 separate types, of which 250 alone are e’s.

Schoepflin, claiming the same invention for the Strasburg printers, believes that all the earliest books printed there were produced by this means; and both Meer­man and Schoep­flin agree that engraved metal types were in use for many years after the invention of the punch and matrix, mentioning, among others so printed, the Mentz Psalter, the Catholicon of 1460, the Eggestein Bible of 1468, and even the Nideri Præ­cep­tor­ium, printed at Stras­burg as late as 1476, as “literis in ære sculptis.”

Almost the whole historical claim of the engraved metal types, indeed, turns on the recurrence of the term “sculptus” in the colophons of the early printers. Jenson, in 1471, calls himself a “cutter of books” (librorum exsculptor). Sen­sen­schmid, in 1475, says that the Codex Jus­tin­ianus is “cut” (insculptus), and that he has “cut” (sculpsit) the work of Lombardus in Psalterium. Husner of Strasburg, in 1472, applies the term “printed with letters cut of metal” (exsculptis {8} ære litteris) to the Speculum Durandi; and of the Præceptorium Nideri, printed in 1476, he says it is “printed in letters cut of metal by a very ingenious effort” (litteris exsculptis artificiali certe conatu ex ære). As Dr. Van der Linde points out, the use of the term in reference to all these books can mean nothing else than a figurative allusion to the first process towards producing the types, namely, the cutting of the punch16; just as when Schoeffer, in 1466, makes his Grammatica Vetus Rhythmica say, “I am cast at Mentz” (At Moguntia sum fusus in urbe libellus), he means nothing more than a figurative allusion to the casting of the types.

The theory of the sculpto-fusi types appears to have sprung up on no firmer foundation than the difficulty of accounting for the marked irregularities in the letters of the earliest printed books, and the lack of a theory more feasible than that of movable wood type to account for it. The method suggested by Meerman seemed to meet the requirements of the case, and with the aid of the very free translation of Trithemius’ story, and the very literal translation of certain colophons, it managed to get a footing on the typographical records.

Mr. Skeen seriously applies himself to demonstrate how the shanks could be cast in clay moulds stamped with a number of trough-like matrices representing the various widths of the blanks required, and calculates that at the rate of four a day, 6,000 of these blanks could be engraved on the end by one man in five years, the whole weighing 100 lb. when finished! “No wonder,” Mr. Skeen naïvely observes, “that Fust at last grew impatient.” We must confess that there seems less ground for believing in the use of “sculpto-fusi” types as the means by which any of the early books were produced, than in the perforated wood types. The enormous labour involved, in itself renders the idea improbable. As M. Bernard says, “How can we suppose that intelligent men like the first printers would not at once find out that they could easily cast the face and body of their types together?”17 But admitting the possibility of producing type in this manner, and the possible obtuseness which could allow an inventor of printing to spend five years in laboriously engraving “shanks” enough for a single forme, the lack of any satisfactory evidence that such types were ever used, even experimentally, inclines us to deny them any place in the history of the origin of typography.


Putting aside, therefore, as improbable, and not proved, the two theories of {9} engraved movable types, the question arises, Did typography, like her patron goddess, spring fully armed from the brain of her inventor? in other words, did men pass at a single stride from xylography to the perfect typography of the punch, the matrix, and the mould? or are we still to seek for an intermediate stage in some ruder and more primitive process of production? To this question we cannot offer a better reply than that contained in the following passage from Mr. Blades’s admirable life of Caxton.18 “The examination of many specimens,” he observes, “has led me to conclude that two schools of typography existed together . . . The ruder consisted of those printers who practised their art in Holland and the Low Countries, . . . and who, by degrees only, adopted the better and more perfect methods of the . . . school founded in Germany by the celebrated trio, Gutenberg, Fust, and Schoeffer.”

It is impossible, we think, to resist the conclusion that all the earlier works of typography were the impression of cast metal types; but that the methods of casting employed were not always those of matured letter-founding, seems to us not only probable, but evident, from a study of the works themselves.

Mr. Theo. De Vinne, in his able treatise on the invention of printing,19 speaking with the authority of a practical typographer, insists that the key to that invention is to be found, not in the press nor in the movable types, but in the adjustable type-mould, upon which, he argues, the existence of typography depends. While not prepared to go as far as Mr. De Vinne on this point, and still content to regard the invention of movable types as the real key to the invention of typography proper, we find in the mould not only the culminating achievement of the inventor, but also the key to the distinction between the two schools of early typography to which we have alluded.

The adjustable mould was undoubtedly the goal of the discovery, and those who reached it at once were the advanced typographers of the Mentz press. Those who groped after it through clumsy and tedious by-ways were the rude artists of the Donatus and Speculum.

In considering the primitive modes of type-casting, it must be frankly admitted that the inquirer stands in a field of pure conjecture. He has only negative evidence to assure him that such primitive modes undoubtedly did exist, and he searches in vain for any direct clue as to the nature and details of those methods.

We shall briefly refer to one or two theories which have been propounded, all with more or less of plausibility.

Casting in sand was an art not unknown to the silversmiths and {10} trinket-makers of the fifteenth century, and several writers have suggested that some of the early printers applied this process to typefounding. M. Bernard20 considers that the types of the Speculum were sand-cast, and accounts for the varieties observable in the shapes of various letters, by explaining that several models would probably be made of each letter, and that the types when cast would, as is usual after sand-casting, require some touching up or finishing by hand. He shows a specimen of a word cast by himself by this process, which, as far as it goes, is a satisfactory proof of the possibility of casting letters in this way.21 There are, indeed, many points in this theory which satisfactorily account for peculiarities in the appearance of books printed by the earliest rude Dutch School. Not only are the irregularities of the letters in body and line intelligible, but the specks between the lines, so frequently observable, would be accounted for by the roughness on the “shoulders” of the sand-cast bodies.22

An important difficulty to be overcome in type cast by this or any other primitive method would be the absence of uniformity in what letter founders term “height to paper.” Some types would stand higher than others, and the low ones, unless raised, would not only miss the ink, but would not appear at all in the impression. The comparative rarity of faults of this kind in the Speculum, leads one to suppose that if a process of sand-casting had been adopted, the difficulty of uneven heights had been surmounted either by locking up the forme face downwards, or by perforating the types either at the time of or after casting, and by means of a thread or wire holding them in their places. The uneven length of the lines favours such a supposition, and to the same cause Mr. Ottley23 attributes the numerous misprints of the Speculum, to correct which in the type would have involved the unthreading of every line in which an error occurred. And as a still more striking proof that the lines were put into the forme one by one, in a piece, he shows a curious printer’s blunder at the end of one page, where the whole of the last reference-line is put in upside down, thus:―

{11}

A “turn” of this magnitude could hardly have occurred if the letters had been set in the forme type by type.

Another suggested mode is that of casting in clay moulds, by a method very similar to that used in the sand process, and resulting in similar peculiarities and variations in the types. Mr. Ottley, who is the chief exponent of this theory, suggests that the types were made by pouring melted lead or other soft metal, into moulds of earth or plaster, formed, while the earth or plaster was in a moist state, upon letters cut by hand in wood or metal; in the ordinary manner used from time immemorial in casting statues of bronze and other articles of metal, whether for use or ornament. The mould thus formed could not be of long duration; indeed, it could scarcely avail for a second casting, as it would be scarcely possible to extract the type after casting without breaking the clay, and even if that could be done, the shrinking of the metal in cooling would be apt to warp the mould beyond the possibility of further use.

Mr. Ottley thinks that the constant renewal of the moulds could be effected by using old types cast out of them, after being touched up by the graver, as models. And this he considers will account for the varieties observable in the different letters.

In this last conjecture we think Mr. Ottley goes out of his way to suggest an unnecessary difficulty. If, as he contends, the Speculum was printed two pages at a time, with soft types cast by the clay process and renewed from time to time by castings from fresh moulds formed upon the old letters touched up by the graver, we should witness a gradual deterioration and attenuation in the type, as the work progressed, which would leave the face of the letter, at the end, unrecognisable as that with which it began. It would be more reasonable to suppose that one set of models would be reserved for the periodical renewal of the moulds all through the work, and that the variations in the types would be due, not to the gradual paring of the faces of the models, but to the different skill and exactness with which the successive moulds would be taken.24 {12}

The chief objection urged against both the clay and sand methods as above described is their tediousness. The time occupied after the first engraving of the models in forming, drying and clearing the mould, in casting, extracting, touching up, and possibly perforating, the types would be little short of the expeditious performance of a practised xylographer. Still there would be a clear gain in the possession of a fount of movable types, which, even if the metal in which they were cast were only soft lead or pewter, might yet do duty in more than one forme, under a rough press, roughly handled. On the xylographic block, moreover, only one hand, and that a skilled one, could labour. Of the moulding and casting of these rude types, many hands could make light work. M. Bernard states that the artist who produced for him the few sand-cast types shown in his work, assured him that a workman could easily produce a thousand of such letters a day. He also states that though each letter required squaring after casting, there was no need in any instance to touch up the faces. M. Bernard’s experience may have been a specially fortunate one; still, making allowance for the superior workmanship and expedition of a modern artist, it must be admitted that, in point of time, cost and utility, a printer who succeeded in furnishing himself with these primitive cast types was as far ahead of the old engraver as the discoverer of the adjustable mould was in his turn ahead of him.25

There remains yet another suggestion as to the method in which the types of the rude school were produced. This may be described as a system of what the founders of sixty years ago called “polytype.” Lambinet, who is responsible for the suggestion, under cover of a new translation of Trithemius’s wonderful narrative, explains this to mean nothing less than an early adoption of stereotype. He imagines26 that the first printers may have discovered a way of moulding a page of some work—an Abecedarium—in cooling metal, so as to get a matrix-plate impression of the whole page. Upon this matrix they would pour a liquid metal, and by the aid of a roller or cylinder, press the fused matter evenly, so as to penetrate into all the hollows and corners of the letters. This tablet of tin or lead, being easily lifted and detached from the matrix, would then appear as a surface of metal in which the letters of the alphabet stood out reversed and in relief. These letters could easily be detached and rendered mobile by a knife or other sharp instrument; and the operation could be repeated a hundred times a day. The metal faces so produced would be fixed on wooden shanks, type high; and the fount would then be complete. {13}

Such is Lambinet’s hypothesis. Were it not for the fact that it was endorsed by the authority of M. Firmin Didot, the renowned typefounder and printer of Lambinet’s day, we should hardly be disposed to admit its claim to serious attention. The supposition that the Mentz Psalter, which these writers point to as a specimen of this mode of execution, is the impression, not of type at all, but of a collection of “casts” mounted on wood, is too fanciful. M. Didot, it must be remembered, was the enthusiastic French improver of Stereotype, and his enthusiasm appears to have led him to see in his method not only a revolution in the art of printing as it existed in his day, but also a solution of the mystery which had shrouded the early history of that art for upwards of three centuries.

It may be well, before quitting this subject, to take note of a certain phrase which has given rise to a considerable amount of conjecture and controversy in connection with the early methods of typography. The expression “getté en molle” occurred as early as the year 1446, in a record kept by Jean le Robert of Cambray, who stated that in January of that year he paid 20 sous for a printed Doctrinale, “getté en molle.” Bernard has assumed this expression to refer to the use of types cast from a mould, and cites a large number of instances where, being used in contradistinction to writing by hand, it is taken to signify typography.27

Dr. Van der Linde,28 on the other hand, considers the term to mean, printed from a wooden form, i.e., a xylographic production, and nothing more, quoting similar instances of the use of the words to support his opinion; and Dr. Van Meurs, whose remarks are quoted in full in Mr. Hessel’s introduction to Dr. Van der Linde’s Coster Legend,29 declines to apply the phrase to the methods by which the Doctrinale was printed at all; but dwelling on the distinction drawn in various documents between “en molle” and “en papier,” concludes that the reference is to the binding of the book, and nothing more; a bound book being “brought together in a form or binding,” while an unbound one is “in paper.” {14}

It is difficult to reconcile these conflicting interpretations, to which may be added as a fourth that of Mr. Skeen, who considers the phrase to refer to the indented appearance of the paper of a book after being printed. In the three last cases the expression is valueless as regards our present inquiry; but if we accept M. Bernard’s interpretation, which seems at least to have the weight of simplicity and reasonable testimony on its side, then it would be necessary to conclude that type-casting, either by a primitive or a finished process (but having regard to the date and the place, almost certainly the former), was practised in Flanders prior to January 1446. None of the illustrations, however, which M. Bernard cites points definitely to the use of cast type, but to printing in the abstract, irrespective of method or process. “Moulées par ordre de l’Assemblée” might equally well apply to a set of playing-cards or a broadside proclamation; “mettre en molle” does not necessarily mean anything more than put into “print”; while the recurring expressions “en molle” and “à la main,” point to nothing beyond the general distinction between manuscript and printed matter. In fact, the lack of definiteness in all the quotations given by M. Bernard weakens his own argument: for if we are to translate the word moulé throughout in the narrow sense in which he reads it, we must then believe that in every instance he cites, figurative language was employed where conventional would have answered equally well, and that the natural antithesis to the general term, “by hand,” must in all cases be assumed to be the particular term, “printed in cast metal types.” For ourselves, we see no justification for taxing the phrase beyond its broad interpretation of “print”; and in this light it appears possible to reconcile most of the conjectures to which the words have given rise.


Turning now from the conjectured primitive processes of the ruder school of early Typography, we come to consider the practice of that more mature school which, as has already been said, appears to have arrived at once at the secret of the punch, matrix and adjustable mould. We should be loth to assert that they arrived at once at the most perfect mechanism of these appliances; indeed, an examination of the earliest productions of the Mentz press, beautiful as they are, convinces one that the first printers were not finished typefounders. But even if their first punches were wood or copper, their first matrices lead, and their first mould no more than a clumsy adaptation of the composing-stick, they yet had the secret of the art; to perfect it was a mere matter of time.

Experiments have proved conclusively that the face of a wood-cut type may be without injury impressed into lead in a state of semi-fusion, and thus produce in creux an inverted image of itself in the matrix. It has also been shown that a lead matrix so formed is capable, after being squared and justified, {15} of being adapted to a mould, and producing a certain number of types in soft lead or pewter before yielding to the heat of the operation.30 It has also been demonstrated that similar matrices formed in clay or plaster, by the application of the wood or metal models31 while the substance is moist, are capable of similar use.

Dr. Franklin, in a well-known passage of his Autobiography, gives the following account of his experiences as a casual letter-founder in 1727. “Our press,” he says, “was frequently in want of the necessary quantity of letter; and there was no such trade as that of letter-founder in America. I had seen the practice of this art at the house of James, in London; but had at the time paid it very little attention. I, however, contrived to fabricate a mould. I made use of such letters as we had for punches, founded new letters of lead in matrices of clay, and thus supplied in a tolerable manner the wants that were most pressing.”32 M. Bernard states that in his day the Chinese characters in the Imperial printing-office in Paris were cast by a somewhat similar process. The original wooden letters were moulded in plaster. Into the plaster mould types of a hard metal were cast, and these hard-metal types served as punches to strike matrices with in a softer metal.33

In the Enschedé foundry at Haarlem there exists to this day a set of matrices said to be nearly four hundred years old, which are described as leaden matrices from punches of copper, “suivant l’habitude des anciens fondeurs dans les premiers temps après l’invention de l’imprimerie.”34 By {16} the kindness of Messrs. Enschedé, we are able to show a few letters from types cast in these venerable matrices.

Lead matrices are frequently mentioned as having been in regular use in some of the early foundries of this country. A set of them in four-line pica was sold at the breaking up of James’s foundry in 1782, and in the oldest of the existing foundries to this day may be found relics of the same practice.

At Lubeck, Smith informs us in 1755,35 a printer cast for his own use, “not only large-sized letters for titles, but also a sufficient quantity of two-lined English, after a peculiar manner, by cutting his punches on wood, and sinking them afterwards into leaden matrices; yet were the letters cast in them deeper than the French generally are.”

When, therefore, the printer of the Catholicon, in 1460, says of his book, “non calami styli aut pennæ suffragio, sed mirâ patronarum formarumque concordiâ proportione ac modulo impressus atque confectus est,” we have not necessarily to conclude that the types were produced in the modern way from copper matrices struck by steel punches. Indeed, probability seems to point to a gradual progress in the durability of the materials employed. In the first instance, the punches may have been of wood, and the matrices soft lead or clay36; then the attempt might be made to strike hard lead into soft; that failing, copper punches37 might be used to form leaden matrices; then, when the necessity for a more durable substance than lead for the letter became urgent, copper would be used for the matrix, and brass, and finally steel, for the punch.

Of whatever substance the matrices were made, the first printers appear early to have mastered the art of justifying them, so that when cast in the mould they should not only stand, each letter true in itself, but all true to one another. Nothing amazes one more in examining these earliest printed works than the wonderful regularity of the type in body, height, and line; and if anything could be considered as evidence that those types were produced from matrices in {17} moulds, and not by the rude method of casting from matrices which comprehended body and face in the same moulding, this feature alone is conclusive. We may go further, and assert that not only must the matrices have been harmoniously justified, but the mould employed, whatever its form, must have had its adjustable parts finished with a near approach to mathematical accuracy, which left little to be accomplished in the way of further improvement.

Respecting this mould we have scarcely more material for conjecture than with regard to the first punches and matrices. The principle of the bipartite mould was, of course, well known already. The importance of absolute squareness in the body and height of the type would demand an appliance of greater precision than the uncertain hollowed cube of sand or clay; the heat of the molten lead would point to the use of a hard metal like iron or steel; and the varying widths of the sunk letters in the matrices would suggest the adoption of some system of slides whereby the mould could be expanded or contracted laterally, without prejudice to the invariable regularity of its body and height. By what crude methods the first typefounder contrived to combine these essential qualities, we have no means of judging38; but were they ever so crude, to him is due the honour of the culminating achievement of the invention of typography. “His type mould,” Mr. De Vinne remarks, “was not merely the first; it is the only practical mechanism for making types. For more than four hundred years this mould has been under critical examination, and many {18} attempts have been made to supplant it. . . . But in principle, and in all the more important features, the modern mould may be regarded as the mould of Gutenberg.”

It may be asked, if the matrices were so truly justified, and the mould so accurately adjusted, how comes it that in the first books of these Mentz printers we still discover irregularites among the letters—fewer, indeed, but of the same kind as are to be found in books printed by the artists of the ruder school? To this we reply, that these irregularities are for the most part attributable neither to varieties in the original models, nor to defects in the matrix or the mould, but to the worn or unworn condition of the type, and to the skill or want of skill of the caster. Anyone versed in the practice of type-casting in hand-moulds, is aware that the manual exercise of casting a type is peculiar and difficult. With the same mould and the same matrix, one clever workman may turn out nineteen perfect types out of twenty; while a clumsy caster will scarcely succeed in producing a single perfect type out of the number. Different letters require different contortions to “coax” the metal into all the interstices of the matrix; and it is quite possible for the same workman to vary so in his work as to be as “lucky” one day as he is unprofitable the next. In modern times, of course, none but the perfect types ever find their way into the printer’s hands, but in the early days, when, with a perishable matrix, every type cast was of consequence, the censorship would be less severe,39 and types would be allowed to {19} pass into use which differed as much from their original model as they did from one another. Let any inexperienced reader attempt to cast twenty Black-letter types from one mould and matrix, and let him take a proof of the types so produced in juxtaposition. The result of such an experiment would lead him to cease once and for all to wonder at irregularities observable in the Gutenberg Bible, or the Mentz Psalter, or the Catholicon.

With regard to the metal in which the earliest types were cast, we have more or less information afforded us in the colophons and statements of the printers themselves; although it must be borne in mind that the figurative language in which these artists were wont to describe their own labours is apt occasionally to lead to confusion, as to whether the expressions used refer to the punch, the matrix, or the cast types. We meet almost promiscuously with the terms,—“ære notas,” “æneis formulis,” “chalcographos,” “stanneis typis,” “stanneis formulis,” “ahenis formis,” “tabulis ahenis,” “ære legere,” “notas de duro orichalco,” etc. We look in vain for “plumbum,” the metal one would most naturally expect to find mentioned. The word æs, though strictly meaning bronze, is undoubtedly to be taken in its wider sense, already familiar in the fifteenth century, of metal in the abstract, and to include, at least, the lead, tin, or pewter in which the types were almost certainly cast. The reference to copper and bronze might either apply to the early punches or the later matrices; but in no case is it probable that types were cast in either metal.

Padre Fineschi gives an interesting extract from the cost-book of the Ripoli press, about 1480,40 by which it appears that steel, brass, copper, tin, lead, and iron wire were all used in the manufacture of types at that period; the first two probably for the mould, the steel also for the punches, the copper for the matrices, the lead and tin for the types, and the iron wire for the mould, and possibly for stringing together the perforated type-models.

It is probable that an alloy was early introduced; first by the addition to the lead of tin and iron, and then gradually improved upon, till the discovery of {20} antimony at the end of the fifteenth century41 supplied the ingredient requisite to render the types at once tough and sharp enough for the ordeal of the press. There is little doubt that at some time or other every known metal was tried experimentally in the mixture; but, from the earliest days of letter-casting, lead and tin have always been recognised as the staple ingredients of the alloy; the hard substance being usually either iron, bismuth, or antimony.


Turning now from type-casting appliances to the early types themselves, we are enabled, thanks to one or two recent discoveries, to form a tolerably good idea as to their appearance and peculiarities. We have already stated that, with regard to the traditional perforated wooden types seen by certain old writers, the probability is that, if these were the genuine relics they professed to be, they were model types used for forming moulds upon, or for impressing into matrices of moist clay or soft lead. We have also considered it possible, in regard to types cast in the primitive sand or clay moulds of the rude school, that to overcome the difficulties incident to irregular height to paper, uneven bodies, and loose locking-up, the expedient may have been attempted of perforating the types and passing a thread or wire through each line, to hold the intractable letters in their place.

This, however, is mere conjecture, and whether such types existed or not none of them have survived to our day. Their possessors, as they slowly discovered the secret of the punch, matrix and mould, would show little veneration, we imagine, for these clumsy relics of their ignorance, and value them only as old lead, to be remelted and recast by the newer and better method.

But though no relic of these primitive cast types remains, we are happily not without means for forming a judgment respecting some of the earliest types of the more finished school of printers. In 1878, in the bed of the river Saône, near Lyons,42 opposite the site of one of the famous fifteenth century printing-houses of that city, a number of old types were discovered which there seems reason to believe belonged once to one of those presses, and were used by the early printers of Lyons. They came into the hands of M. Claudin of Paris, {21} the distinguished typographical antiquary, who, after careful examination and inquiry, has satisfied himself as to their antiquity and value as genuine relics of the infancy of the art of printing.

It has been our good fortune, by the kindness of M. Claudin, to have an opportunity of inspecting these precious relics. The following outline profile-sketches will give a good idea of the various forms and sizes represented in the collection. There is little doubt that they were all cast in a mould. The metal used is lead, slightly alloyed with some harder substance, which in the case of a few of the types seems to be iron. The chief point which strikes the observer is the variety in the “height to paper” of the different founts. Taking the six specimens shown in the illustration, it will be seen that no two of the types correspond in this particular. No. 4 corresponds as nearly as possible to our English standard height. No. 3 is considerably lower than an ordinary space height. No. 2 approaches some of the continental heights still to be met with, while Nos. 1, 5, and 6 are higher than any known standard. It is easy to imagine that an early printer who cast his own types would trouble himself very little as to the heights of his neighbours’ and rivals’ moulds, so that in a city like Lyons there might have been as many “heights to paper” as there were printers. It is even possible that a printer using one style and size of letter exclusively for one description of work, and another size and style for another description, might not be particular to assimilate the heights in his own office; and so, foreshadowing the improvidence of some of his modern followers, lay in founts of letter which would not work with any other, but which, as time went on, could hardly be dispensed with. Then, when the days of the itinerant typesellers and the type-markets began, he might still further add to his “heights” by the purchase of a German fount from one merchant, a Dutch from another, and so on.

The type No. 3, though lower than all the rest, has yet a letter upon its {22} end. But it seems likely that the old printers cut down their worn-out letters for spaces, not by ploughing off the face, but by shortening the type at the foot. So that No. 3 (presuming the bodies to have corresponded) might stand as a space to No. 4, or No. 4 to No. 1. At the same time, the collection includes a good number of plain spaces and quadrats (the latter generally about a square body), which may either have been cast as they now appear, or be old letters of which the face and shoulder have been cut off.

The small hole appearing in the side of type No. 4 is a perforation, and the collection contains several types, both letters and spaces, having the same peculiarity. Whether this hole was formed at the time of or after casting; whether the letters so perforated were originally model-types only, or types in actual use; whether the hole was intended for a thread or wire to hold the letters in their places during impression; or whether, for want of a type-case, it was used for stringing the types together for safety when not in use, it is as easy to conjecture as it is impossible to determine. The perforated types which we examined certainly did not appear to be older, and in most cases appeared less old than those not perforated,—the outline of type No. 4 itself shows it to be fairer and squarer than any of its companions.

Another peculiarity to be noted is the “shamfer,” or cutting away of one of the corners of the feet of types 2, 5, and 6. This appears to have been intentional, and may have served the same purpose as our nick, to guide the compositor in setting. None of the types have a nick, and types 1 and 3 have no distinguishing mark whatever. The two small indentations in the side of type 2 are air-holes produced in the casting.

With regard to the faces of the types, there are traces in most of the letters of the “shoulders” of the body having been tapered off by a knife or graver after casting, so as to leave the letter quite clear on the body. In most cases the letter stands in the centre of the body, which is, as a rule, larger than the size of the character actually requires. In point of thickness, however, the old printers appear to have been very sparing; and a great many of the letters, though possessing ample room “body-way,” actually overhang the sides, and are what we should style in modern terminology “kerned” letters. The difficulty, however, which would be experienced by printers to-day with these overhanging sorts, was obviated to a large extent in the case of the old printers by the numerous ligatures, contractions, and double letters with which their founts abounded, and which gave almost all the combinations in which an overhanging letter would be likely to clash with its neighbour.

One last peculiarity to be observed is the absence of what is known as the “break” at the foot of the type. The contrivance in the mould whereby the {23} foot of the type is cast square, and the “jet,” or superfluous metal left by the casting, is attached, not to the whole of the foot, but to a narrow ridge across the centre, from which it is easily detached, was probably unknown to the fifteenth century typefounders. Their types appear to have come out of the mould with a “jet” attaching to the entire foot, from which it could only be detached by a saw or cutter. The “shamfer” already pointed out in types 2, 5, 6, if produced in the mould, may indicate an early attempt to reduce the size of the jet, which, if attaching to the entire square of the foot of a type the size of No. 2, would involve both time and labour in removal. M. Duverger, in his clever essay to the invention of printing,43 gives an illustration of the manner in which he imagines the old types would be detached from their jets; and considers that in the three points only of the want of a breaking “jet,” the want of a spring to hold the matrix to the mould, and the absence of a nick, the mould of the first printer differed essentially from that of the printer of his day.

Such are some of the chief points of interest to be observed in these venerable relics of the old typographers. It is to be hoped that M. Claudin may before long favour the world with a full and detailed account of their many peculiarities. Yet, curious as they are, they prove that the types of the fifteenth century differed in no essential particular from those of the nineteenth. Ruder and rougher, and less durable they might be, but in substance and form, and in the mechanical principles of their manufacture, they claim kinship with the newest types of our most modern foundry. {24}

The old Lyonnaise relics are not the only guide we have as to the form and nature of the fifteenth century types.

M. Madden, in 1875, made a most valuable discovery in a book printed by Conrad Hamborch, at Cologne, in 1476, and entitled La Lèpre Morale, by John Nider, of the accidental impression of a type, pulled up from its place in the course of printing by the ink-ball, and laid at length upon the face of the forme, thus leaving its exact profile indented upon the page. We reproduce in facsimile M. Madden’s illustration of this type, which accompanies his own interesting letter on the subject.44

A similar discovery, equally valuable and interesting, was made not many months ago by the late Mr. Henry Bradshaw, of Cambridge, in a copy of a work entitled De Laudibus Gloriosæ Virginis Mariæ, sine notâ, but printed probably about 1468 at Cologne.45 We are indebted to Mr. Bradshaw for the present opportunity of presenting for the first time the annexed facsimile of this curious relic, {25} photographed direct from the page on which it occurs.46 These two impressions are particularly interesting in the light of the old Lyonnaise types still in existence. Like them, it will be seen they are without nick, and tapered off at the face. They are also without the jet-break. The height of both types (which is identical) is above the English standard, and more nearly approaches that of No. 2 of the Lyons letters; and M. Madden points out as remarkable that this height (24 millimètres) is exactly that fixed as the standard “height to paper” by the “réglement de la libraire” of 1723. The body of the types (assuming the letter to be laid sideways, of which there can be little doubt) is about the modern English, and so corresponds exactly to the body of the text on which it lies.

The chief point of interest, however, is in the small circle appearing in both near the top, which M. Madden (as regards the type of the Nider) thus explains: “This circle, the contour of which is exactly formed, shows that the letter was pierced laterally by a circular hole. This hole did not penetrate the whole thickness of the letter, and served, like the nick of our days, to enable the compositor to tell by touch which way to set the letter in his stick, so as to be right in the printed page. If the letter had been laid on its other side, the existence of this little circle would have been lost to us for ever.” It would, however, be quite possible for a perforated type, with the end of the hole slightly clogged with ink, to present precisely the same appearance as this, which M. Madden concludes was only slightly pierced; and were it not for the fact that the pulling-up of the letter from the forme is itself evidence that the line could not have been threaded, we should hesitate to affirm that either of the types shown was not perforated. The sharp edge of the circumference in the type of the De laudibus, leaving, as it does, in the original page, a clearly embossed circle in the paper, makes it evident that the depression was not the result of a mere flaw in the casting, although it is possible (as we have satisfied ourselves by experiment) for the surface of the side of a roughly-cast type to be depressed by air-holes, some of which assume a circular form, and may even perforate a thin type. Indeed, at the present day it is next to impossible to cast by hand a type which is not a little sunk on some part of its sides; and this roughness of surface we can imagine to have been far more apparent on the types {26} cast by the earliest printers. We doubt, therefore, whether, in types liable to these accidental depressions of surface, a small artificial hole thus easily simulated would be of any service as a guide to the compositor. A more probable explanation of the appearance seems to be that the head of a small screw or pin, used to fix the side-piece of the mould, projecting slightly on the surface of the piece it fixed, left its mark on the side of the types as they were cast, and thus caused the circular depression observable in the illustrations.47

Before leaving this subject it may be remarked that the clear impression of the printed matter, despite the laid-on types, which must in either case have been a thin sort, is strong evidence of the softness of the metal in which the fount was cast. The press appears to have crushed the truant types down into the letters on which it lay, and, unimpeded by the obstacle, to have taken as good an impression of the remainder of the forme as if that obstacle had never existed.


The quantity of type with which the earliest printers found it necessary to provide themselves, turns, of course, upon the question, did the first printers print only one page at a time, or more? M. Bernard considers that the Gutenberg Bible, which is usually collated in sections of five sheets, or twenty pages, containing about 2,688 types in a page, would require 60,000 types to print a single section; and if sufficient type was cast to enable the compositors to set one section while another was being worked, the fount would need to consist of 120,000 letters. Others consider that two pages, requiring, in the case of the Gutenberg Bible, only 6,000 types, were printed at one time. But even this estimate has been shown to be opposed to the evidence afforded by a considerable number of the incunabula, respecting which it is evident only one page was printed at a time. On this point we cannot do better than quote the words of Mr. Blades. “The scribe,” he says, “necessarily wrote but one page at a time, and, curiously enough, the early printers here also assimilated their practice. Whether from want of sufficient type to set up the requisite number of pages, or from the limited capability of the presses, there is strong evidence of the early books from Caxton’s press having been printed page by page. . . . . Instances are found of pages on the same side of the sheet being out of parallel, which could not occur if two pages were printed together. . . . A positive proof of the separate printing of the pages may be seen in a copy of the Recuyell of the Histories of Troye, in the Bodleian; {27} for the ninth recto of the third quaternion has never been printed at all, while the second verso (the page which must fall on the same side of the sheet) appears properly printed.”48

What is true of Caxton’s early works is also true of a large number of other fifteenth century printed books. Mr. Hessels, after quoting the testimony of Mr. Bradshaw of Cambridge, and Mr. Winter Jones of the British Museum, refers to a large number of incunabula in which he has found evidence that this mode of printing was the common practice of the early typographers.49

Assuming, then, that the first books were generally printed page by page, it will be seen that the stock of type necessary to enable the printer to proceed was but small. 2,700 letters would suffice for one page of the forty-two-line Bible; and for the Rationale Durandi, about 5,000 would be required. It is probable, however, that, as Bernard suggests, the printers would cast enough to enable one forme to be composed while the other was working, so that double these quantities would possibly be provided. Nor must it be forgotten that a “fount” of type in these days consisted not only of the ordinary letters of the alphabet, but of a very large number of double letters, abbreviations and contractions, which must have seriously complicated the labour of composition, as well as reduced the individual number of each type required to fill the typefounder’s “bill.” This feature, doubtless attributable to the attempt on the part of the early printers to imitate manuscript as closely as possible, as well as to the exigencies of justification in composition, which, in the absence of a variety of spaces, required various widths in the letters themselves, was common to both schools of early typography. M. Bernard states that, in the type of the forty-two-line Bible, each letter required at least three or four varieties; while with regard to Caxton’s type 1, which was designed and cast by Colard Mansion at Bruges, before 1472, Mr. Blades points out that the fount contained upwards of 163 sorts, and that there were only five letters of which there were not more than one matrix, either as single letters or in combination. Speaking of the Speculum, Mr. Skeen counts 1,430 types on one page, of which 22 are a, 61 e, 91 i, 73 o, 37 u, 22 d, 14 h, 30 m, 50 n, 42 s, and 41 t; besides which there are no less than ninety duplicate and triplicate characters, comprising one variation of a, 15 of c, 7 of d, 3 of e, 9 of f, 10 of g, 3 of i, 7 of l, 2 of o, 3 of n, 2 of p, 10 of r, 9 of s, 9 of t, varying in the frequency of their occurrence from once to eleven times, leaving but 541 other letters for the rest of the alphabet, including the capitals; {28} and of these last, from three to twenty would be the utmost of each required. Altogether, calculating 138 matrices (i.e., two alphabets of twenty-four letters each, and ninety double and treble letters) to be the least number of matrices required to make a complete fount,50 the highest number of types of any one particular sort necessary to print a single page would be ninety-one. The average number of the eleven chief letters specified above would be about forty-four, while if we take into calculation the minor letters of the alphabet and the double letters, this average would be reduced to little more than ten. It will thus be seen that the founts of the earliest printers consisted of a small quantity each of a large variety of sorts. Mr. Astle, in his chapter on the Origin and Progress of Printing,51 is, we believe, the only writer who has dwelt upon the difficulty which the first letter-founders would be likely to encounter in the arrangement of their “bill.” This venerable compilation was, he considers, made in the fifteenth century, probably by the ordinary method of casting-off copy. If so, it must have experienced considerable and frequent change during the time that the ligatures were falling into disuse, and until the printer’s alphabet had reduced itself to its present limits.


Of the face of type used by the earliest printers we shall have occasion to speak later on. Respecting the development of letter-founding as an industry, there is little that can be gathered in the history of the fifteenth century. At first the art of the inventor was a mystery divulged to none. But the sack of Mentz, in 1462, and the consequent dispersion of Gutenberg’s disciples, spread the secret broadcast over Europe. Italy, Switzerland, France, the Netherlands, Spain, England, in turn learned it, and after their fashion improved it. Italy, especially, guided by the master-hands of her early artists, brought it to rapid perfection. The migrations of Gutenberg’s types among the early presses of Bamberg, Eltville, and elsewhere, have led to the surmise that he may have sold matrices of his letter.52 In 1468, Schoeffer put forward what may be considered the first advertisement in the annals of typography. “Every nation,” he says, in {29} the colophon to Justinian’s Institutes, “can now procure its own kind of letters, for he (i.e., Schoeffer himself) excels with all-prevailing pencil” (i.e., in designing and engraving all kinds of type).53 For the most part printers were their own founders, and each printer had his own types. But type depôts and markets, and the wanderings of the itinerant typographers, as the demands of printing yearly increased, brought the founts of various presses and nations to various centres, and thus gave the first impulse to that gradual divorce between printing and typefounding which in the following century left the latter the distinct industry it still remains.


Such is a brief outline of the chief facts and opinions regarding the processes, appliances and practices of the earliest typefounders. It may be said that, after all, we know very little about the matter. The facts are very few, and the conjectures, in many instances, so contradictory, that it is impossible to erect a “system,” or draw any but general conclusions. These conclusions we very briefly summarise as follows.

Accepting as a fundamental principle that the essence of typography is in the mobility of the types, we dismiss, as beyond the scope of our inquiry, the xylographic works which preceded typography. Passing in review the alleged stepping-stones between the two arts, we fail to see in the evidence adduced as to the use of movable wooden perforated types anything to justify the conclusion that the earliest printers printed books by their means. Such types may have been cut experimentally, but the practical impossibility of cutting them square enough to be composed in a forme, and of producing a work of the size and character of the Speculum, is fatal to their claims. With regard to the sculpto-fusi types—types engraved on cast-metal bodies—the evidence in their favour is of the most unsatisfactory character, and, coupled with the practical difficulties of their production, reduces their claims to a minimum. The marked difference of style and excellence in the typography of certain of the earliest books leads us to accept the theory that two schools of typography existed side by side in the infancy of the art—one a rude school, which, not having the secret of the more perfect appliances of the inventors, cast its letters by some primitive method, probably using moulds of sand or clay, in which the entire type had been moulded. Such types may have been perforated and held together in lines by a wire. The suggestion that the earliest types were produced by a system of polytype, and that the face of each letter, sawn off a plate resembling a {30} stereotype-plate, was separately mounted on loose wooden shanks, we dismiss as purely fanciful.

Turning now to the processes adopted by the typographers of the more advanced school, we consider that in the first instance, although grasping the principle of the punch, the matrix and the adaptable mould, they may have made use of inferior appliances—possibly by forming their matrices in lead from wooden or leaden punches or models—advancing thence by degrees to the use of steel punches, copper matrices, and the bipartite iron mould. We hold that the variations observable in the early works of this school are due mainly to uneven casting and wear and tear of the types. As to the metal in which the type was cast, we find mention made of almost every metal, several of which, however, refer to the punches and matrices, leaving tin, lead, and antimony as the staple ingredients of the type-metal. Of the types themselves, we find these in most essential particulars to be the same as those cast at a later date. We see, however, evidence of perforated, mould-cast type, and, in the absence of a nick, a “shamfer” at the foot, from which the jet appears to have been sawn or cut, instead of being broken. We remark a great irregularity in the heights of different founts, the average of which height is beyond any modern English standard. The accidental impression of a type in two early German books, proves that about the year 1476 types were made differing only in the two points of the want of a nick and the want of a jet-break from the types of to-day. The quantity of types required by the earliest printers, we consider, would be small, since they appear in most instances to have printed only one page at a time; but the number of different sorts going to make up a fount would be very considerable, by reason of the numerous contractions, double letters and abbreviations used.

Finally, we consider that the art of letter-founding rapidly reached maturity after the general diffusion of printing consequent on the sack of Mentz; and that when the writer of the Cologne Chronicle, in the last year of the 15th century, spoke of “the art as now generally used,” he spoke of an art which, at the close of the 19th century, has been able to improve in no essential principle on the processes first made use of by the great inventors of Typography.