Theodore DeVinne—America’s Forgotten Compositor


Theodore Low De Vinne bustEven though he died 48 years ago, DeVinne
anticipated modern-day problems resulting from automation

Of all the compositors who have made contributions to the American graphic arts, Theodore Low DeVinne stands high in a most distinguished company. Now, 48 years after his death, DeVinne has been almost forgotten, even though his ideas are as meaningful for the present generation of printers as they were 80 years ago. The renowned printing historian, Stanley Morison, considers DeVinne to be the most neglected figure in the history of American printing.

DeVinne was probably unique among his fellow printers in that he was equally well-informed upon the history of the craft of printing, its technology, and its management. In our own age of specialization, it is unlikely that one man will ever again have the opportunity to acquire such breadth of accomplishment.

The son of a Londonderry Irishman who emigrated to Stamford, Conn., and became a Methodist minister, T.L. DeVinne was born on Christmas day in 1828.

Through an association of the elder DeVinne with the founders of the publishing firm of Harper & Bros., four of his sons entered the printing trade. Theodore L. DeVinne became an apprentice compositor at the age of 14, serving his time in the office of the Newburgh Gazette. At the completion of his indenture in 1848, he went to New York and worked in a number of printing offices before accepting a job as a journeyman compositor with the firm of Henry Hart in 1850.

By 1859, young DeVinne had become composing room foreman. When DeVinne became interested in purchasing his own printing office in Ogdensburg, N.Y., Hart urged upon him a partnership in the firm. When Hart died in 1877, DeVinne purchased the senior partner’s share, and changed the name of the firm to Theo. L. DeVinne & Co., a name that was to become the most famous of all American printing establishments.

This brief history records an advance that was not at all unusual in the business life of 19th century America. What is surprising is the fact that DeVinne was not at all satisfied with mere commercial success. He was so fascinated by the craft of printing that he spent all of his spare time attempting to learn more about it. Such free time, incidentally, was not plentiful. In the early 80’s, for example, the workweek of a printer was 63 hours, but DeVinne still managed to study German, French, and Italian. This was a necessity if he expected to learn the history of printing, since there was little material available in English.

Although he was best known as an historian, his earliest printed work, published in 1869, was a book on estimating, The Printers’ Price List, a Manual for the Use of Clerks and Bookkeepers in Job Printing Offices. The late Carl Rollins called this book the first important thing that DeVinne did for the printing business.

For the rest of his life, DeVinne was a primary force in improving the relationships between employing printers and workmen. This interest led to his participation as a founder of the Typothetae of the City of New York, which later became a national group, the United Typothetae of America. It is now known as the Printing Industry of America.

Seven years after the publication of The Printers’ Price List, DeVinne produced what is undoubtedly his most important book, appearing under the imprint of his own printing office, at that time still known as Francis Hart & Co. This splendid book, The Invention of Printing, was the result of its author’s intense interest in the practical aspects of his craft.

In it DeVinne attempts to prove that the invention of movable type was without question the great contribution of Johann Gutenberg. Writing as late as 1950, Carl Rollins stated, “To attack the problem of the invention of movable type with a fresh mind, steeped in actual acquaintance with it, was the problem which DeVinne set himself, and so thoroughly did he meet it that his work is still a standard book, supplemented in some details by later studies, but not supplanted.”

A number of other books on typography followed, in addition to innumerable articles in trade periodicals. DeVinne’s second most important undertaking was a new American printing manual. The most popular manual of the 19th century was MacKellar’s American Printer, but by the close of the century there had been so many advances that it was outdated.

DeVinne planned a manual of six volumes, to be entitled The Practice of Typography. The first of these, Plain Printing Types, was issued in 1900, followed by Correct Composition in 1901, A Treatise on Title Pages in 1902, and Modern Methods of Book Composition in 1904. The last two, which were to be on the subject of presswork, were never issued. While this might seem to indicate that as a compositor DeVinne lacked knowledge concerning presswork, such was not the case.

The reputation of the DeVinne firm, in fact, was based primarily on its fine presswork. During this period, the cylinder press was coming into wide use, and the halftone was supplanting the wood engraving. DeVinne, working with press manufacturers, inkmakers, and with the paper mills, successfully bridged this transitional period. His contributions include a leading part in the development of overlays as a make-ready technique. Such efforts attracted the interest of publishers of periodicals, and his plant produced the best printed magazines in the country—St. Nicholas and Scribner’s, which later was renamed The Century Magazine.

DeVinne’s love of books, which led him to acquire a library of over 6,000 volumes, also led to a founding membership in the famous Grolier Club. Of the 55 titles produced by the club prior to 1914, DeVinne printed 45. He also served three years as president of the club.

As the period of DeVinne’s life spanned the advance from hand press to cylinder press, and from hand composition to machine composition, he knew at first hand the problems of transition from one technology to another and was completely sympathetic to such a change. As printers today are faced with similar problems, such as automation, changes in process, development of phototypesetting, and the like, some of DeVinne’s opinions still ring true. Writing in The Manufacturer and Builder, June 1889, in an article entitled Do Machines Hurt Trade? DeVinne stated:

“As a rule, the mechanics who most bitterly decry machines are those who have been found incompetent to handle them. The men who refuse to learn the theory or practice of new processes—who are content to do work as it was done when they were boys . . . are the very men that employers do not want to employ upon their machines. That they may and probably will suffer for their persistent refusal to adapt themselves to changed conditions is much to be regretted; but are they blameless?

“It is probable that many employers will at first try to get composition done on machines with the cheapest labor. They will sophisticate themselves with the notion that a cheaply paid helper will soon be taught to do as much as an expert workman. This fallacy is no longer believed.”

These thoughts of America’s greatest scholar-printer are still applicable, 73 years later.

This article first appeared in “The Composing Room” column of the April 1962 issue of Inland Printer/American Lithographer.

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