August 1

In the self-deprecating manner of the 19th century writer, one Thomas Hodgson wrote in the introductory chapter of An Essay on the Origin and Progress of Stereotype Printing, published this day in 1820:

“The Writer of the following pages can the lay claim to little merit beyond that of collecting, into one publication, a variety of information, which either lay scattered in different works, or was unknown to the generality of English readers. Whilst pursuing some enquiries nearly connected with this subject, it struck him as singular, that whilst almost every other branch of the typographic art had been the subject of so much curious research and minute description, Stereotype Printing, notwithstanding the public curiosity it has of late years excited, should never yet have been fully and accurately described,—and that so great a want of information, with respect to its history, and to the nature of its processes, should prevail, not only amongst the generality of the public, but also amongst those writers, who have spoken of it incidentally, or treated it more professedly.”

Stereotyping, now as solidly respectable in the printing industry as type itself, was at that period in the position of computer typesetting in the 1960’s—accepted by a few, questioned by many, and condemned by everyone else.

Hodgson, in his fair and balanced treatise, was not quite willing to accept the findings of the promoters of the new process. “Having traced,” he wrote, “the progress of stereotype printing from its first origin to the present time, when it appears to have attained so great a degree of perfection, it only remains to enquire, whether these advantages, with which the practice of the art was so confidently expected to be attended, have been derived from it. . . . Experience, however, I am afraid, hasshewn that these advantages have at least been greatly overrated.”

The opinionated J. Johnson, in his very popular two-volume Typographia of 1824, not only didn’t approve of the new process, but he was willing to shout the fact from the house-tops: “It appears that the invention of Stereotype, like that of Printing, is somewhat involved in mystery; . . . but, we conceive that its author is not worth the pains of our tracing; and more particularly when we reflect, .that so many of our brethen who well deserve (from their ability) a comfortable subsistence, and who ought to be enabled (from their profession) to move in a respectable sphere of life, are now, through this process, reduced to a very humble pittance, thereby bringing the first Art in the world down to a level with the lowest; and, at one season of the year, nearly one half of the valuable body of men alluded to may be considered as totally destitute of employ, on account of the standard works, which was the summer’s stock work, having been Stereotyped.”

As late as 1838 here in the United States Thomas Adams, in his manual, Typographia, echoes some of Johnson’s sentiments, but in the third edition of his work, published in 1845, he says, “In all cases of book work where a small edition only will be required, it is best to print from types, and then distribute them: but in most cases of standard works or books published in parts, or numbers, stereotyping becomes absolutely necessary.”

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