December 5

William Blades, printer, bibliographer, and typographic historian, was born this day in the year 1824, in the London suburb of Clapham. A leading master printer and author of a number of books about printing, Blades is best known for his lifetime efforts to promote interest in the life of William Caxton, the first English printer.

At the age of sixteen, Blades was apprenticed in the printing office of his father, a well known printer specializing in the production of checks and bank notes. The period of William’s indenture was seven years, during which he worked in every department of the firm, establishing the professional competency which was to aid him later in his bibliographical studies. It was during this period that he became vitally interested in the history of the craft of printing. He also began to acquire the splendid collection of books which eventually was to become the nucleus of the Printing Library of the St. Bride Foundation in London—now called simply St. Bride’s, and one of the finest libraries of printing technology in existence.

Blades became particularly interested in the career of Caxton, and not being content to rely on secondary sources as written by Dibdin, Ames, and Herbert, he located and secured access to over 450 books produced by the Caxton Press in dozens of public and private libraries. He then proceeded to document every book, making a tabulation of the type being used. He was thus able to record every one of Caxton’s types and to trace their use until they had been worn out. For the first time, the dates of printing these volumes became fairly well established. Blades proved that a serious study of typefaces was of immeasurable value in obtaining correct bibliographic information which had hitherto remained unknown.

In 1861 Blades published the first volume of his study, The Life and Typography of William Caxton. The second volume appeared in 1863. The work, in addition to helping to establish new bibliographic standards, also created a revival of interest in Caxton and his period.

During his lifetime Blades became involved in two controversies which engaged the interest of English printers. He took the part of the English inventor William Nicholson who had claimed that he was the inventor of the steam press rather than the German engineer Frederick Koenig. He also supported the claim of the partisans of Coster as against those of Gutenberg as the inventor of movable type and printing as we know it. In his short history, The Pentateuch of Printing, edited by Talbot Baines Reed and published in 1891, the year following Blades’ death, he presents his opinions upon both of these arguments.

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