December 25

On this day in 1828 was born the first of America’s great scholar-printers, Theodore L. De Vinne, in Stamford, Connecticut. De Vinne’s father, a Methodist minister, had six sons, four of whom became printers. The other two became bookbinders.

De Vinne first visited a printing office when he was seven years of age, the occasion being the start of the apprenticeship of his oldest brother, John, with the firm of Harper Brothers. One of the owners gave the child a book during his trip through the plant. This book remained in Theodore’s library the rest of his life. At fourteen years of age in 1842, young De Vinne was apprenticed to the trade in the office of The Gazette, in the Hudson River valley town of Newburgh. Following his indenture, he worked in plants in New York City from 1848 to 1850 when he became a journeyman compositor in the office of Francis Hart, where he was destined to spend his entire career as a printer.

The Hart shop contained one 23 x 28 inch Hoe cylinder press operated by a hand wheel, three hand presses and a Gillman card press. Illumination was supplied by five camphene lamps and twenty candlesticks. In a very short time De Vinne was named foreman and in 1858 was made junior partner.

By 1877, the year of Francis Hart’s death, De Vinne owned a one-third interest in the establishment. By the terms of his partner’s will he became full owner upon the gradual payment to Hart’s widow of the sum of $160,000. The firm of Theodore L. De Vinne & Company was then formed, and within a short period it had gained the reputation of being one of the best printing plants in America. Its owner became known & America’s finest printer.

As the printer of The Century magazine, De Vinne’s production methods excited the admiration of printers everywhere. Working with press manufacturers, paper mills, and with engravers and electrotypers, he developed what today would be called quality control procedures. The end result of these techniques was the best printed periodical in existence. His reputation was so secure that his customers actually preferred being placed upon a waiting list in order to be sure of the De Vinne imprint.

From the time that De Vinne first secured employment in New York, he had been continuing his education. As a member of the New York Typographical Society he spent a great deal of time in its library, which then contained some five thousand volumes. At thirty-one years of age he was editing a small publication entitled The Printers’ Miscellany, contributing articles on the history of the craft and descriptions of new equipment and procedures. He began to take voluminous notes on printing history. In order to read source material he studied French, Italian, and German. From 1859 until his death in 1914, he was a constant contributor to technical journals.

In 1876 he published his greatest work, The Invention of Printing, which has not yet been surpassed as a study of the origins of the craft. His most widely known work was the four-volume Practice of Typography, which continued the great tradition of printer’s manuals begun in 1683 with the publication of Joseph Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises. He also wrote a number of other books on typography, establishing his reputation as the first important American writer on the subject.

All of this activity was accompanied by his interest in the printing trade itself. He was a founder and first president of the United Typothetae of America and was extremely active in the promotion of good employer-employee relationships in the industry.

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