A Typographic Gem by Firmin Didot

Printer’s manuals form an important source of book historical information. The first such manual in any language was Joseph Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises on the Whole Art of Printing (London, 1683-84). Numerous handbooks were to follow over the centuries, and they are crucial for understanding of how texts were produced in the hand-press period. In the process of making a book, many decisions and many mistakes were made that left their marks on the text. In other words: form affects meaning. Most manuals start with a survey of the invention and history of printing, which, depending on the birthplace of the author, is either ascribed to Gutenberg or Coster. As a rule, printer’s manuals discuss the tools and equipment of everyone involved in the printing process: the type founder, the ink maker, the compositor, the pressmen, and sometimes even the warehouse keeper.

An interesting example is Marcelin Brun’s comprehensive Manuel pratique et abrégé de la typographie française (Paris, 1825). This handsome little book was printed by the famous Firmin Didot and provides the essential information on the art of printing. The book does not open with the usual history of printing, but heads straight into observations on how to house a printing office. In the seven chapters that follow, Brun discusses every detail relating to the printing process, from the form of type cases, the manufacture of ink, to the setting of type and the correcting of proofs. Of course, the book does not lack a chapter on imposition, i.e. the way the pages for each side of a sheet were arranged and subsequently printed and folded to make a gathering. Another interesting chapter describes in full detail how the printed sheets are to be folded. But perhaps the most interesting feature is the book itself as ”it possesses the singular feature of not containing one divided word throughout.”[i] 


[i] Bigmore & Wyman, A Bibliography of Printing, volume I, p. 88. See also: Barber, French Letterpress Printing (Oxford, 1969), p. 17.
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