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university of toronto quarterly, volume 73, number 4, fall 2004 E . H A V E N H A W L E Y Mechanical Fingerprints and the Technology of Nineteenth-Century American Erotica The increasingly complex production patterns undertaken by nineteenthcentury book publishers have left behind a bewildering maze of details for historians to analyse. Yet for those willing to undertake technical analysis, small bits of evidence can offer valuable information about the social and financial arrangements surrounding the upsurge of American-made erotica during that century. Books, like other material artefacts, reveal evidence of the processes by which they have been created. The Adams power press, the most prominent American-designed book press during much of the nineteenth century, left distinctive indentations on sheets conveyed through it for printing. Using as examples two publications by William Berry that were associated closely with networks that supplied obscene books across the country, this paper details a method for identifying gripper marks still present on both illicit and mainstream books and newspapers. Studying the production details of Life in Boston and The Countess can expand our understanding of how intellectual content, technological development, and gendered occupational patterns intersected in nineteenth-century American publishing.1 This paper was presented originally at New Scholarship in Book History and Print Culture: An Interdisciplinary Conference sponsored by the Book History and Print Culture Program of the University of Toronto, the Toronto Centre for the Book, and Massey College, on 11 October 2002. It is based on a chapter of the author’s dissertation, ‘American Publishers of “Indecent” Books, 1840-1890.’ I am indebted to Richard Noble, rare books cataloguer at the John Hay Library of Brown University, for suggesting the phrase ‘mechanical fingerprints.’ Portions of the research for this paper were conducted while holding the Reese Fellowship for the Study of Bibliography in the Americas at the American Antiquarian Society in August of 2002, with other bibliographical training provided in July of 2002 during a Reese Fellowship at Rare Book School, University of Virginia. 1 The Countess is one of about 160 titles this dissertation has identified as racyor obscene literature produced in whole or in part in the United States through 1890. Although more suggestive than explicit, The Countess earned mention in the catalogues compiled by nineteenth-century erotica bibliographer Henry Spencer Ashbee. About fifty Americanmade works have been located and examined, with six read only on microfilm. Ashbee’s bibliographies, written under the pseudonym Pisanus Fraxi, have been reprinted as The Encyclopedia of Erotic Literature from the privately printed originals: Index Librorum Prohibitorum (1877); Centuria Librorum Absconditorum (1879); and Catena Librorum Tacendorum (1885). Otherbibliographiesconsulted includeMendes, Kearney, and Reade [Alfred Rose, mechanical fingerprints in american erotica 1037 university of toronto quarterly, volume 73, number 4, fall 2004 Analysed within the context of other bibliographical data, Adams power press gripper marks can aid historians in connecting publications to specific shop practices, capital investment, and technological levels even when traditional publisher business records are not available. They can confirm that a printer employed American press equipment to produce a publication . The presence of such indentations can determine the smallest sheet size for a publication, allowing historians to estimate the size of the press used and a printer’s minimum capital investment. Prevalent from 1840 to 1880, the Adams power press and its use connotes technological competence . Printing socially marginal literature on that press suggests that a printer’s practices lay not on the outskirts of the industry but well within standard trade customs. Press suppliers promoted the employment of women to feed sheets into the machine. Patent designs, advertising iconography, and best-practice accounts of the day facilitated the entry of women as feeder operators into formerly male pressrooms. Gripper marks thus also point to an intricate interplay of gender assumptions and technological practices, raising difficult questions about the role of women in printing sensational or obscene literature. Thus, this mode of bibliographical analysis raises new lines of inquiry for social historians to pursue. American book printers relied heavily on Adams power presses from the 1840s through the 1870s. The press fitted well with printing customs in the 2 United States, in part because American publishers, unlike their...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 1036-1051
Launched on MUSE
2014-07-02
Open Access
No
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