William Morris: Crusader For Craftsmanship

About 85 years ago an Englishman named William Morris began to protest what he considered to be the dehumanizing effects of the 19th century automation of the printer’s craft on the esthetic sensibilities of individuals. Fortunately, printing happened to be one of the many crafts for which Morris had an affinity so things have never been quite the same since.

Prior to Morris’ remonstrance, mechanization had of course made giant strides in the printing industry. Following the invention of the papermaking machine in the first decade of the century, Herr Koenig perfected the power-driven cylinder press and the initial steps of Ged and Stanhope led to the perfection of the stereotype process. The invention of rotary presses and printing from rolls of paper rather than sheets soon followed.

During all of this development—and because of it—tremendous growth of commercial printing occurred. As a result the typefounders began to disregard what had heretofore been the primary force in printing for almost four centuries—that is, the production of the book. Little effort was put into the design of book types, resulting in a serious decline of standards.

Now, the Morris indignation was almost simultaneous with the successful conclusion of Ottmar Mergenthaler’s experiments in creating the linecasting machine. No record appears of any account of what William Morris thought of “automated” typesetting, but it doesn’t take much imagination to speculate about his conclusions. Such an inference is borne out by his letter about the type used in his book, The House of the Wolfings, published in 1888: “. . . I quite agree with you about the type; they have managed to knock the guts out of it somehow. Also I am beginning to learn something about the art of typesetting; and now I see what a lot of difference there is between the work of the conceited numskulls (sic) of today and that of the15th and 16th century printers merely in the arrangements of the words, I mean the spacing out: it makes all the difference to the beauty of a page of print.”

Mind you, this was written prior to the absolute horror created by the wedge-shaped spaceband of Mr. Schuckers, which finally made a commercial success of the “Merg,” as the early Linotype machine was called by composing room operatives. Morris, no stranger to the coining of expletives, would have had some choice remarks about that!

As it was, what he did have to say about the typography of his times struck responsive chords wherever thoughtful practitioners of printing gathered to discuss the state of their craft. But Morris was not at all satisfied merely to talk about printing. Characteristically he became a printer, albeit a rather private one, with all of the considerable vigor at his command.

Out of all this came what is referred to as the private press movement. Depending upon the viewpoint, this was either a most praiseworthy endeavor or a devil’s brew of interference by fanatics with everything that was logical to civilized standards of reasonable men.

The Morris love affair with the production of the printed word is memorialized by the splendidly printed books bearing the imprint of the Kelmscott Press. Unfortunately he lived only a few years after its founding, and like most similar individualized ventures, the press did not long survive his death in 1896.

He wrote, a year earlier, a short statement of his aims as a printer, in which he said, “I began printing books with the hope of producing some which would have a definite claim to beauty, while at the same time they should be easy to read and should not dazzle the eye, or trouble the intellect of the reader by eccentricity of form in the letters.”

These remarks must be judged by the modern observer in the light of the influences upon Morris in his time. He had always been a medievalist, and his printing—while typographically of the 15th century—was decoratively in the mode of an earlier period, strongly actuated by the illuminators and rubricators.

The great book issued by his press, and the one upon which his reputation as a printer rests, is the Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. While this volume is to our 20th century eyes definitely not “easy to read,” it is still a magnificent example of the printer’s art. Indeed, one must examine this splendid folio at first hand in order to obtain a sympathetic understanding of Morris’ idealism as expressed in the art of the book.

The importance of what this man undertook to accomplish 85 years ago rests upon his example, and not upon the work of his press seen simply as specimens of fine printing. He demonstrated the levels of attainment reached by dedicated individuals who choose to bring to one of the minor arts standards which had been lost in the transfer from craft to trade.

As is well-known to all printers familiar with the history of their calling, Morris was only the standard-bearer of a creed upon which his numerous followers were to construct the typographical coming-of-age of our times. While his basic principles were furthered most noticeably by the Doves and Ashendene Presses, similar ventures to his own, innumerable attempts by others have since been made.

Even more significantly, the Kelmscott example inspired men who applied it commercially and thereby enlarged the base, so to speak, of fine printing. In the United States, late in the last century, a notable group of typographers grew to maturity under such inspiration, and so set the pace that even now we cannot escape their influence.

The more important of these were Daniel B. Updike, Bruce Rogers, Frederic W. Goudy, William A. Dwiggins, and Will Bradley. Each of these notable typographers created his own sphere of influence, and even though no “school” emerged, they were all leaders in the appreciation of first-rate typography.

Twentieth century printers now take for granted a profusion of excellent types, along with the highest standards of design and production. Such concepts were virtually unknown 85 years ago, until a man named William Morris decided that it was time to act rather than simply to sound off.

Those of us who are concerned with the rather similar dehumanizing of the production of printing by computer technology can perhaps take heart when we reflect upon the example of Morris.

This article first appeared in the “Typographically Speaking” column of the October 1974 issue of Printing Impressions.

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