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Block Printing

( Originally Published 1927 )



The next step towards the invention of printing was the impressing of plates made out of one single block of wood upon which was engraved in relief the matter one proposed to print. In our days this would be designated as a wood-cut. Towards the end of the fourteenth century, the wood of the linden and of the beech tree was used, the matter carved with a sharp instrument in longitudinal sections; images of the Saints and playing cards were the first products made from such wooden plates. Great were the inconveniences experienced in the employment of these wooden plates, engraved in one single piece. It was necessary to make as many of these wood-cuts as the book had pages, engrave as many letters as there were in the copy, none could serve elsewhere than in the plates wherein it was fixed or engraved. The letters were without uniformity and the mistakes made by the engraver could be eliminated only by inserting in a solid block smaller wooden strips, which very rarely had the same stability as the full block of wood. These wood-cuts were alternately wetted with pigment and dried again, became bent and cracked, and were not of long service. In due time and through long practice, the wood engravers advanced to the stage where they carved entire books, primers which were called Donates. Donatus was a Latin grammarian.

Printing from these wood-cuts was not accomplished with a press; the paper was placed upon the form, the latter blackened with an earthy color, and then through application of a soft dabber the paper was printed against the picture or text. The back of the paper could not be used; these prints were all one-sided and a sheet printed only on one side was called Anopisthographic. In order to bind these loose leafs into book-form, two pages were printed side by side on one sheet of paper. This sheet was folded in the middle and the inner blank margins formed the back of the book. Even long after the invention of the art of printing, this kind of printing from wood-cuts remained in practice, and took the place of modern stereotyping. The wooden tablets for such pamphlets of which several editions might be required were preserved and used when needed. By the middle of the fifteenth century the art of reproduction was thus far advanced, and as intellectual life flourished, the craving for art and for the products of classical literature became more pronounced. Momentous questions pertaining to matters of the Church were the order of the day and awaited their solution. The time for the discovery of the art of printing was ripe, and it was, as soon as it became a necessity, not long in arriving.

From printing from movable, one-piece wood-cuts to the idea of printing with movable letters is indeed only one step ; if one visualizes the printing block cut up in single letters, it becomes evident that one can assemble these letters to one's liking in other ways and thereby form a new text. The principle of the printing art does not consist only in the idea of assembling carved letters together, but in manufacturing metal letters mechanically, casting them in matrices, and to mechanically multiply with the aid of a press and ink the form set up with these letters. In one word, the invention of printing is bound up with the inventions of type casting, type setting, building of presses, press printing and printing ink. The invention of printing therefore was not simply a happy inspiration but the result of long search, laborious drudgery and oppressive worries.



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