- (Up)Setting Type:An Experiment in Re-Creation
Our experiences working in a small press have taught us that any history of printing is also in some degree autobiographical. We humbly follow genre conventions: for the last four years, we have trained as printing apprentices in the Bibliography Room of the Robertson Davies Library, at Massey College. Under the supervision of the college printer, Nelson Adams, we've had the opportunity to learn composition and book design, and to use five nineteenth-century flatbed presses. Abi has quickly become our resident expert on wood type, material bibliography, and digitization, and Amy has focused on typesetting, design, and ink mixing. When the Victorian Review editorial team asked us to apply this experience to a forum piece on the subject of the Victorian periodical, we jumped at the opportunity.
Faced with the question of what our firsthand knowledge of nineteenth-century printing equipment and techniques could add to scholarship on the Victorian periodical, we decided to approach the question by way of experiment. Channelling the spirit of cheap, industrialized printing that made possible so many Victorian periodicals, we went looking for a single page that demonstrated as many elements of Victorian letterpress printing as possible. A trip to the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library led us to The History of Charles Jones, originally published in Hannah More's series Cheap Repository [End Page 178] Tracts between 1795 and 1798, and reprinted in the edition used here as a small duodecimo chapbook in 1839. Inspired by Charles Jones's charming (read: hideous) design,1 we agreed to spend no more than eight hours reproducing the title page to the best of our ability, using only materials plausibly available to a chapbook publisher at mid-century. This limited us to British-made wood type and a single lead face: Bodoni bold, in roman and italic.
Our decision to focus on a chapbook title page as our case study hinged on broad definitions of the periodical and periodical publishing. We looked to the chapbook because, while the form had outlived its eighteenth-century heyday by 1839, this type of cheap, industrialized printing paved the way for the periodical culture that dominated the nineteenth-century press (Neuburg, "Popular Literature," 103–04, 121–22).2 Furthermore, chapbooks foreground the role of printers in periodical production, products of a workflow that blurred the distinction between printer, publisher, and bookseller: often, authorship was ambiguous and publication dates were omitted (Grand, "Production"). Instead, chapbooks recorded the printers' and publishers' names and were even known to feature short advertisements on the title page aimed at hawkers, peddlers, and chapmen (Grand, "Distribution"). The cheap, shabbily printed title pages signalled a relatively affordable source of entertainment for the labouring classes. In this sense, the sloppiness of chapbook production can be attributed to both economic constraints and a language that appealed to customers with only a penny to spend.
We began the process of re-creation by studying the chapbook and trying to determine how it was composed. The letters that spell out "Charles Jones" and "On Pride and the Country Clergyman" (fig. 1) are soft and porous in their impression—characteristic of wood type. The irregular kerning, clear impression, and general simplicity of design suggest that the rest of the type used was lead. Upon closer inspection, however, we began to second-guess our diagnosis of a mixed-media page. The chapbook was simply too small for wood type to have been a practical design choice: although wood type was cheap and lightweight, and therefore appealing to many Victorian printers, small faces were uncommon, and wood type was more often used for broadside printing. While we remain unsure as to whether the larger faces on this page were printed with wood or instead with very worn lead (thus accounting for the soft impression and dulled edges), either possibility offers us insights into cheap early-Victorian print: if wood type was used, inexpensive and lightweight materials might have appealed to a printer pressed for both time and money; if worn lead type was used, we could conclude that the printer of simple projects like chapbooks used...