Little Material Available for Typographic Library

The accumulation of a typographic library is not as easy an accomplishment as might be imagined at first thought. Each year sees a number of additions to the list of books concerned with printers’ types and their use, but unfortunately few managed to survive beyond the small first edition. One of the reasons is undoubtedly the fact that many of the typographic books published in the last few years are the collections of stray facts garnered from some of the basic texts that have withstood the judgments of generations.

Apparently, most textbook publishers are a little wary about venturing into the field of typography, probably on the advice of their respective merchandising research departments, which fail to find a sufficient guaranteed audience for such books .There are arguments in defense of this position, because too few schools in the United States offer courses in typography at a sufficiently high level to warrant publication of an extensive text. It is true that books concerned with that facet of typography directed toward advertising design are assured of a more stable market, but even here the practice of illustrating such volumes with current advertising shortens their life span.

The first manual of instruction pertaining to the craft of printing was Joseph Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises, published in London in 1683. Since that time there have always been available to printers handbooks giving advice and counsel on the practices of what was at first the art, and then craft, and finally the trade of printing. For the next 200 years a stream of these items was produced. It is interesting to note that many of them contain similar passages, since each successive editions leaned quite heavily on its predecessor.

Even today some of these manuals maybe read with profit by practicing printers, particularly for information concerning some of our time-honored methods and procedures. The list of chapel rules as listed by Moxon, for instance, can be the source of considerable amusement when read today—tempered, however, with respect for the craft that has for centuries made such a definite contribution to human progress.

In the United States, printers formerly purchased the text published in England, until in 1818 they finally had one of their own in The Printers’ Guide, by C.S. Van Winkle, issued that year in New York. Probably the best-known being used of the American manuals and one which went into many editions was Thomas Mackeller’s American Printer, published in Philadelphia in 1866. There are undoubtedly many printers still alive who first practiced under the guidance of Mackellar. Even now the book is still one of the best sources of information on the working methods of 19th-century print offices in the United States.

In the present century, Theodore Low De Vinne began his four-volume manual, Practice of Typography. This was a serious and scholarly work by the outstanding printer of his period, and it remains today extremely valuable reference. Anyone who has sought out books on printing from the shelves of secondhand dealers can readily recognize the De Vinne volumes among a host of other volumes.

The next important text to appear was the excellent series of lessons produced by the International Typographical Union for its own apprentices. The ITU Lessons combined printing history with current procedures in a most satisfactory manner and played an important role in the development of many outstanding printers by making them to be aware of the heritage of their craft.

The most recent addition to the long list of manuals is the book produced under the guidance of the Printing Industry of America, Inc., as part of its commendable program to supply up-to-date texts for all phases of the industry. This volume, entitled Composition Manual, was issued in November, 1953, as the result of several years of effort by the Composition Steering Committee of the PIA.

This committee, comprising some of America’s outstanding practical printers, selected the material to be covered by the text, carefully screened all of the material to make sure that it included the most acceptable working procedures now current in the industry, and then selected Ralph W. Polk and Harry Gage to combine the material into an understandable text. Each chapter of the book was sent to every member of the committee for approval and recommendations, following which it was rewritten and again submitted. All of the illustrations were likewise screened, resulting in a manual that should be standard for the craft for many years to come.

The chapters on machine composition, while not intended to be all-inclusive operating procedures for the respective equipment, are about the most readable accounts yet written on the subject and bring the reader right up to the moment with the most recent developments, including photographic composition equipment and justifying typewriters.

No matter where a young man receives his basic education in the printing craft—schools, country printing offices, standard commercial printing establishments, or with specialists such as advertising typographers or trade composition concerns—he will be well-grounded in the standards and accepted practices if he becomes acquainted with this volume, which indeed gives the present generation the substance leading to productive careers and keeps alive the traditions first put down by Joseph Moxon.

This article first appeared in “The Composing Room” column of the May 1954 issue of The Inland Printer.


One Comment

  1. On the subject of typography and specifically Ralph W. Polk’s work in printing education, I thought you might find interesting my post on Polk’s “Know-Your-Types” flashcards published while he was teaching at Cass Technical High School in the 1930s:

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