October 16

John Luther Ringwalt was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania on this day in 1828. He became a printer’s apprentice in West Chester, Pennsylvania and at the age of seventeen was appointed the editor of the Monroe Democrat in Stroudsburg. For the next twenty-five years he worked in the Philadelphia area, performing editorial tasks and becoming a partner in a job printing firm. His great contribution to the history of American printing came in 1871, when he published the American Encyclopaedia of Printing. It is probably the most valuable source of information concerning the technology of printing in the United States during the 19th century up until the date of its publication.

In his Preface, Ringwalt set out immediately to demonstrate that his compendium was all-inclusive: “In the title of this work,” he writes, “the term printing is used in its oldest and widest sense, so as to include not only all the established methods of multiplying facsimiles, but also the auxiliary processes essential to the production of a folded newspaper or a bound book. As an Encyclopaedia, it aims to traverse the circle of the art to which it relates, and therefore to describe its history, as well as its implements, its processes, and its products. . . .”

Actually, a great many of the 1,700 articles in Ringwalt’s work had originally appeared in an English book by John Southward, Dictionary of Typography. This book was also published in 1871. The American copyright was owned by R. Menamin, who was Ringwalt’s partner in the publishing of the Encyclopaedia. While the author does not acknowledge his debt to Southward, he does mention a number of his American collaborators. His wife Jessie, who had a great deal of experience as an editorial writer, was responsible for many of the biographical articles on American printers which were included in the book and which constitute such a valuable source of reference today.

The Encyclopaedia relies, as did so many other 19th century technical books in both England and the United States, on the earlier manuals, all the way back to the 17th century of Moxon. It remains, however, a fascinating source of exhaustive information. As a practical printer, Ringwalt’s approach to his subject constituted a labor of love. He wrote: “The stereotyped phrase that printing is the art preservative of all arts, conveys a totally inadequate idea of its present position and utility, for it now not only preserves a record of all arts, but also converts them into useful auxiliaries, in the performance of its grand duties as the most beneficial, useful, and indispensable agent employed in human affairs; . . .”

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