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The Victorian World of Printing

The Victorians brought all the various elements together - read on!


The first printing presses were set up in Germany in the Fifteenth Century. From then until the mid-Eighteenth Century there were two main types of printing that were developed – relief and intaglio. Printing by moveable typeface falls to relief printing, copper engraving and etching (along with a later development of mezzotint) fall to intaglio printing and give a better finish. During the last part of the Eighteenth Century and first part of the Nineteenth experiments were carried out which varied and improved methods. Amongst these, copper plate was replaced by steel engraving (driven by security printing, i.e. bank notes and etc.) and wood cut was replaced by wood-engraving. With relief printing the ink is on the raised image and transferred to paper under pressure. With intaglio printing the raised surface is wiped clean leaving the ink in the hollows of the image to be forced out onto paper under pressure. Hand tinting, a labour intensive process, allowed colour to be added to pictures.

Metal letterpresses began to replace wooden ones from the turn of the century. Most popular in America from 1817 was the Columbian and in England from 1822 the Albion (with many of these still in use up to the beginning of the 2nd World War. But these were still hand-presses.

By 1810 the German engineer Frederick Koenig had applied steam power to a traditionally constructed flat press and over the next two years developed a powered cylinder press with the Times newspaper being the first major concern to install one. Flat bed presses were replaced with vertical cylinders called rotary presses, thereby further increasing print production. For the scale of operations involving newspapers the speed at which paper could be fed was critical and various improvements (the technicalities of which, for the purposes of this book, we will not go into) were made during the rest of the century. By the end of the century electricity was beginning to be introduced as a source of power. The final major development was offset presses in which three cylinders worked in unison, one inking, one carrying the image to be transferred onto the paper carried by the third.

At the end of the day, however, the expense of any powered cylinder presses precluded use by most jobbing printers who would continue to use the flat bed presses or employed, at best, hand-powered cylinder presses to churn out handbills, calling cards, business cards and the like (atypical ephemera) from their back street premises.

Lithography and photography, however, were the two developments to have most impact on printing. Lithography is a mechanical planographic process (printing from a flat surface, or plane), in which the printing and non-printing areas of the plate are all at the same level. Water absorbing limestone slabs were cut and made totally smooth for the designs to be drawn on them. The design areas were then marked with greasy ink and the remaining areas were treated with gum arabic and well moistened with water. The ink would be applied with a roller but only adhere to the greasy ink, being repelled elsewhere by the water. The image would then be transferred to paper pressed onto the stone.

 The concept was invented by Alois Senefelder in Germany in 1798 and brought to England in 1800. As the Nineteenth Century wore on the versatility of lithography was realised – images could be printed in one of the other methods, such as mezzotint, and transferred onto the stone producing equally good result more easily. The process also allowed text to be reproduced and not just in straight lines but in curves.

Developments in lithographic processes paralleled that of the letterpress above although often a few years behind. Powered lithograph machines were introduced in 1851 and metal plates started to replace the limestone slabs. When metal plates were inserted onto cylinders rotary offset printing could be made of use.

Chromolithography was one of three colour printing techniques developed during the first half of the Nineteenth Century. That versatility soon allowed it to outstrip its rivals whose methods were based upon wood blocks and wood engravings.

The lithographer, just like the engraver, would need to be skilled to reproduce faithfully the picture entrusted to him. In some cases, to ensure faithful reproduction of detailed pictures, an image would be enlarged onto the plate and printed onto India rubber stretched on an iron frame. The mechanism of the frame would then allow the rubber to contract down to the size of the picture to be printed and then reapplied to a plate.

Plates would be prepared according to the number of basic colours to be applied. Light colours would be applied first. The image on each plate would need to be perfect in order not to end up with a blurred final print from overlapping colours. This was no mean feat given one plate for each colour with around 10 colours to be applied as the usual. (By the end of the century fine exhibition quality lithographs could be up to 25 colours applied and there is a suggestion that Louis Prang of Boston used as any as 44).

(Chromolithograph would eventually be applied to tins and tin plate toys)

Embossing allowed features of the image to be highlighted and raised. Where 24 carat gold was added as a colour, as in the case of the image of a medallion on a cigar box label, that raised image could now be burnished and the whole thing given to look like a real medallion or coin. The earliest and easiest form of embossing would have been carried out using a die that was hammered onto the paper or card. The next embossing development was to involve a die and counter-die that would also allow for the sheet to be die cut (a technique which gave, among other things, Victorian scraps and lace paper around the edge of Valentines cards).

During embossing paper would have a tendency to split and the inks would also crack. This was particularly so if the paper was a cheap quality which was made up of short fibres. To prevent this, printers either used more expensive paper that had longer fibres (printers of cigar labels in some cases reverted to using rag based paper) and/or coat it with various substances like gelatine to make it pliable during the embossing process.

Typefaces that were movable created a revolution that made printing easy. Early type face was cut from wood, metal type was to come later. The earliest typefaces tended to reflect the style of professional writers (e.g. monks – Gothic). There were some small additions to typeface designs during the Seventeenth Century and during the last half of the Eighteenth typeface was developed that followed the curving lines of prevailing baroque and rococo decorative styles.

It was particularly advertising in the first two decades of the Nineteenth Century that drove type founders to produce a wider range of typefaces (and larger size, departing from the smaller sizes associated with book printing) following styles of lettering found in sign writers work. These were used mainly on posters and handbills by jobbing printers (these were small concerns often consisting only of the master printer and his assistant, book printers were larger). In the first half of the Century British foundries led the way in creating new types and there was a positive explosion. As a result printers over-indulged and created things in what many now comment on as being an over-crowded and cluttered style.

There have been two or three notable additions to Typefaces in the Twentieth Century. Times New Roman was designed specifically for The Times newspaper and was used for the first time on 3rd October 1932. Gill Sans were developed by Eric Gill and their use spread during the 1930s but they were developed out of Sanserif that were designed by Edward Johnson for the London Underground Company in 1916. Derivatives of these are still used for public notices on the underground today.

Typefaces can be arranged into categories with names such as Inline and Outline; Three-Dimensional; Engraved, Half-tone and Shaded; and Embellished. This last category contains unbelievably highly ornate faces with names like Romantiques; Lettres Ornees and Raffia.

Until the point system was introduced in America and England at the end of the Nineteenth Century size of typeface were given names; for example, what we now know as 12 point was called Pica.

Typefaces were originally produced by pouring molten metal from a ladle into a hand held mould. The first type-casting machine was invented in 1838.

Subsequent developments in typeface have mostly been variations and derivatives of Nineteenth Century ones. I suspect that this extends largely into the computer-generated field as well. I also suspect that even with fonts purchasable for download on the Internet that only a fraction of what was originally produced by the foundries has been covered electronically. (Specialist books nowadays often not on the open shelves but held deep in the reserve stocks of public libraries hold the clue). But if this has whetted your appetite, if you have a computer then the next time you sit at it and look at fonts available on the software, just remember …….

Paper is arguably one of the most important inventions of the last 2 millennia.  Using wood to make paper was first suggested by Rene Antoine Ferchault de Reaumur in 1719 and inspired by observing wasps building their nest. This had been in response to a critical shortage of old clothes and rags - the paper making materials of that time. Other problems involved bleaching the rags for paper production chlorine bleach, in use by the end of the century, would produce poor quality paper.

The Fourdrinier brothers of England set up the first commercially viable paper making machine in 1803 at Frogmore using a French 1799 patented design. This water powered machine allowed production of paper to keep pace with the increasing demand.

It was not until 1850 that the German Friedrich Keller devised a method of making paper from pulp although this was poor quality. In 1852 the Englishman Hugh Burgess perfected the use of wood pulp by 'digesting' the wood with chemicals. During the remainder of the century a number of other chemicals were found which when added improved upon the process, and by 1900 economical, mass-produced paper had become a reality.

Inks were originally produced from organic matter. During Victorian times an emerging chemicals industry increased the range of colours available to the printer, but not without risk. Many of the colours cannot be reproduced today because the formulae is lost, others cannot because of the dangers involved – for example, arsenic was one highly toxic substance used as an additive. (Mind you, Victorians also used small doses of this as an aphrodisiac. One can picture the printers at the end of a working day, going home and licking their fingers in anticipation – how did they get on those penny-farthings?!).

Generally speaking, a history of printing and associated topics could not be done justice within the confines of this site and is too specialised. I have provided a very brief and rather simple glimpse into this world. Experimentation often took years, and sometimes decades, to come to fruition in the form of a patent. And over the succeeding decades there were improvements on design, such as self-inking rollers on letterpresses, which seem to us insignificant but were major steps in printing. I have been unable to include these or give in-depth details on what I have included. It has been just enough to give an indication of how all this was coming together in Victorian times. But further, printing needs to be viewed against the background of society and other developments in the wider world. Education brought an increasing literacy to the masses, trade drove advertising, canals and railways provided the infrastructure for the distribution of the printed material.

Above all else one must remember that at this time chromolithography brought colour print to the masses.

For an article on these elements decade by decade in the 20th Century please go to The Ephemera Album Part 2 via the Link button on the left.

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