April 25

“Since we must have books,” wrote Jean Jacques Rousseau, “there is just one which, to my mind, furnishes the finest of treatises on education according to nature. My son shall read this book before any other; it shall for a long time be his entire library, and shall always hold an honorable place. It shall be the text on which all our discussions of natural science shall be only commentaries. It shall be a text for all we need during our progress toward a ripened judgment, and so long as our taste is unspoiled, we shall enjoy reading it. What wonderful book is this? Aristotle? Pliny? Buffon? No; it is Robinson Crusoe!”

Written by Daniel De Foe, Robinson Crusoe, published on April 25, 1719. It became an instant success, although in manuscript the work had not been popular with those publishers to whom it had been shown. An account of De Foe’s difficulties with his novel was written some twenty years after its publication. “Robinson Crusoe’s manuscript ran through the whole trade, nor would anyone print it, though the writer was in good repute as an author. One bookseller at last, not remarkable for his discernment, but for his speculative turn, engaged in this publication. This bookseller got above a thousand guineas by it; and the booksellers are accumulating money every hour by editions of this work in all shapes.”

Within forty years the novel had appeared in forty-one different editions and some fifteen “imitations.” Of the latter, the first of which appeared during the original year of publication, De Foe bitterly protested: “The injury these men do the proprietor of this work, is a practice all honest men abhor; and he believes he may challenge them to show the difference between that and robbing on the highway, or breaking open a house. If they can’t show any difference in the crime, they will find it hard to show any difference in the punishment.”

While a first edition of Robinson Crusoe is today a most valuable piece of property, its prestige is due primarily to its rarity, and not at all to its worth as a prime example of the printer’s art. Henry C. Hutchins, in a study of the book, writes: “The year 1719 in which Robinson Crusoe appeared under the imprint of William Taylor, at the Sign of the Ship in Paternoster Row, comes in a period which is referred to by most writers on the history of printing in England as the dark age.”

There was at the time very little typefounding in England, although the estimable William Caslon was even then contemplating a career in that craft. English printers were almost completely dependent upon Dutch sources for their types, and even those types which were cast in England owed their origin to Dutch founders. The conclusion of authorities on 18th century typography and printing is that the book was composed of letters cast in England by native typefounders, but utilizing matrices which had been imported from Holland, possibly originally cut by Voskens.

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