The invention of stereotyping was one of the advance steps in printing. It, therefore, seems that a few words dealing with the origin and development of the art of printing, before entering upon the data pertaining to stereotyping proper, will be of interest.
There are, in the history of human intellect, three fundamental stages, and each one presents a tremendous advance over the preceding stage : Speaking, Writing, Printing. Through the gradual progress made by means of speaking, writing and printing, man became more and more qualified for that which is his particular privilege and which is the fundamental condition of his superiority, namely for the communication of thought.
Printing is the art of reproducing a written thought, set up with the aid of movable, mechanically multiplied types, applying ink to this set up form of type, and making there-from an indefinite number of impressions on a press.
It is difficult to state at what period of time the germ of the art of printing did not exist; some forms of printing were practised at the most remote periods of antiquity. One of the earliest methods was sculpting of pictures and characters on skins, barks of trees, shoulder bones of sheep, shells. Another method was the pressure of engraved seals or signets into gold, wax, or other soft substances. It is also probable that the first step in the art was carried to such perfection by the Assyrians that they produced clay or brick books. Many centuries ago, an ancient book was discovered, entirely composed of lead. Not only were the two pieces that formed the cover, and the leaves, six in number, of lead, but also the stick inserted through the rings to hold the leaves together, as well as the hinges and the nails. It contained pictures of Egyptian idols. The Egyptians employed a broad-leafed rush growing on the banks of the Nile, as the material to write upon. This was the papyrus. Parchment, which is the prepared skins of animals, came into use B.C. 250. It was so called from Pergamus, whose king, seeking to collect a library which would vie with that of Alexandria, and being debarred a supply of papyrus by the jealousy of the Ptolemies, had recourse to the substitute. Ancient books were not commonly disposed in a square form, but were rolled up. Hence the word volume, signifying a roll.
Coining money, by making copies of an original in gold, silver, copper or other metals, was also practised by the Greeks and Romans several centuries before the Christian era. The Romans were acquainted with the art of printing. Cicero, the great Roman philosopher, has passages in one of his works from which the hint of printing was taken. That author orders the type to be made of metal and calls them formae literarum, the very words used centuries afterwards to describe them. Agesilaus, king of Sparta, by stratagem to animate his soldiers to battle, wrote upon his hand “nike,” Greek for victory, and then by pressure imprinted the same word upon the liver of the slain victim, and the letters thus impressed became in the eye and imagination of the superstitious multitude a pledge of military success. We also learn of a Sultan who, on signing an edict, dipped his whole hand in blood, and then impressed the paper. The children of the Romans were taught spelling with the help of small tablets having elevated letters, which they combined in words.
Printing, however, as defined above, usually implies the use of a pigment like printers’ ink. The Romans had metal stamps for marking names, goods, etc., to which it is supposed they sometimes applied ink, thus using them as handstamps are used at the present day. It appears from the nature of these handstamps that the essential features of modern printing were understood by the Romans, but the time was not ripe for the invention of printing.
Before its invention in China in the eleventh century, printing with the aid of a pigment was not known to have been applied to literary purposes. The Chinese were the first to impress upon paper, or similar substances, the reversed transcript of engraved characters, through the conjoint aid of ink and pressure. Each page was very neatly written on thin transparent paper, then glued face downward upon a smooth block of wood. The plain or white parts were cut away with most wonderful rapidity, and the drawing left in relief. Both sides of the block were similarly operated upon. The engraved wood was then properly arranged upon a frame, and the artist, with a large brush, covered the whole surface with a very thin ink; he then laid very lightly over it a sheet of paper, then passed a large brush over it, lightly, yet so surely that the paper was pressed upon the raised figures, and upon no other part. One man printed ten thousand sheets in one day! The Diamond Sutra, printed in China by Wang Chieh, now on exhibition at the British Museum in London, is the oldest book known, the date is given as May 11th, 868. It consists of six sheets of text and one shorter sheet with a wood-cut, all sheets pasted together so as to form one continuous roll 16 (!) feet long by one foot wide. Each sheet is 2% feet long by one foot wide, indicating the large size of the wooden blocks used. However, the printing of the Chinese appears never to have advanced beyond the style of wood-block books. In Rome, copies of books, records, speeches, etc., were readily, rapidly and cheaply multiplied by slaves, who were educated to serve as copyists or scribes. Thus the books of those early days are called manuscripts, from manus, the hand, and scribere, to write. Writing of books by hand continued to be the only method practiced throughout centuries until the great migration of peoples was ended. The surging, driving ahead, the clashing together of the many different European peoples with the assaulting, onward storming tribes out of the East lasted for several centuries, and out of this turmoil there emerged a new European state formation. In this ‘epoch of brutal might and endless battling, culture and scientific pursuit found but isolated havens of refuge. The remnants of learning and erudition took flight to the monasteries. Even the art of reading and writing, in the early Middle Ages, was known only to the clergy. The monks, almost exclusively, undertook the reproduction and multiplication of all spiritual and worldly statutes, bibles and other manuscripts; it was they who wrote the public documents.
The monks did not content themselves with simply copying; they developed it to an applied art. Some did the writing (scriptores), others compared and corrected the scripts and provided manuscripts with headings (rubricatores), and set them out in columns. Those possessing artistic skill painted initial letters (illuminatores), marginal adornments and miniatures (miniatores). The results of all this painstaking labor were pieces of veritable fine art, which were often bound in satin with covers of gold and silver, studded with precious stones. Cloth, linen, silk, parchment and vellum were used to write upon. Vellum, the skin of very young or abortive calves, was exquisitely stained in tints of rose, purple, yellow, blue and green. King Henry the Second was influenced to enact a law that of every work published in France one copy should be written on vellum and sent to the Royal Library, and this kingly order laid the basis of the splendid collection of vellum books in the Library of Paris. Books in those times were scarce and costly. Only the rich, the monasteries and the universities had libraries. The Countess of Anjou bought a book of Homilies, paying for it two hundred sheep, five quarters of wheat and the same quantity of rye and millet. The Cathedral of Notre Dame in Strasbourg was famed for its splendid collection of five hundred volumes. In Oxford, books were put in the pews or studies and chained to them.