Early typography

Gutenberg style printing press

The first printing press was invented in 1454 by James Gutenberg and remained pretty much unchanged until the start of the Industrial revolution. His process used individual lead characters put together to produce lines of text.

The characters were made by creating a steal punch with a reversed character carved in to the other end in relief. The punch would be hammered in to a block of copper to produce an indented image of the character, this was repeated for every character (letters, numbers & glyphs) needed.




Mould for casting type

The individual character was created using the indented cooper block and a special mould. A mixture of molten lead 75% Antimony 20% and tin 5% would be poured in to the mould to cast the individual character. Thousands of copies of each character would be cast and laid out in a type case. A person known as a typesetter would select individual characters and create lines of text in a visorium.

Typecase and a Visorium

The typesetter would hold a piece of wood and would place the individual characters on it to create a line of text, once he had created about 6 lines of text he would mount it in a gallery. When all the pages needed to complete a quire were made, they were inserted in to a frame called a chase, which was made of metal. It is important to note that when printing a book there is a recto and a verso print, recto is one side of a page while verso is the other.

The chase would then be taken to the printing press, inked balls were used to prepare the text for printing. A blank sheet of paper would be placed on the press and the press platen came down to press the blank sheet against the freshly inked rows of text. This operation was repeated many times to create many copies of the chase.

The first printing presses were very large and not portable but by the mid 15th century with assistance from Peter Schoffer and Johann Fust Gutenberg invented a portable metal type. His invention was adopted quickly throughout Europe. German, Italy Spain and Switzerland took delivery of most of the Guttenberg machines followed by central Europe and England.

James Gutenberg died in 1468 and there were only two print workshops in his home town of Mainz, but by the end of the fifteenth century printing presses were to be found in over two hundred and fifty cities across the continent of Europe.

Due to the labour intensive and time consuming effort needed to create books most print runs were small. The Gutenberg bible for example had only 180 copies, most print runs of the time were 4 to 500 copies expanding to around 1,500 by the turn of the 15th century.

bookEarly printed books followed the traditional manuscript style, reproducing the layout and organisation of a medieval book, for example forgoing a title page so having the text start on the first sheet. The type used also followed the same traditional design and replicated the written word. Larger format books would generally be broken in to columns, and sometimes a commentary, or gloss printed in a smaller type would surround the main text. The text was very often quite dense and would include abbreviations as used by copyists in the middle ages, Some printers also continued to print on parchment again reminiscent of the manuscript.

Historians invented the concept of incunabula, Latin for “cradle”, used to depict books pre 1st January 1501. They use this to make a distinction between the oldest printed works which resemble manuscripts and the more contemporary works. The design of printed books as we would recognise them today really came in to their own in the 1520s.

When Gutenberg produced his first font he copied the only style he knew the Gothic script handwriting style that was used in Germany for copying manuscripts. The Bible he printed used a Gothic face known as Textura, it was a very stiff text mainly used for liturgical texts.

New typefaces also imitating the blackletter style scripts quickly followed such as the much rounded rotunda, which was heavily used for texts written in Latin. Scripts specific to countries such as French Batarde, h10-pngGerman Schwabacher and Fraktur were also converted to type. All these scripts were pretty rigid and were written with very black thick lines hence the name. Blackletter remained the dominant typeface in Germany for almost five hundred years, it was the Natzi party that eventually banned it in 1941. The blackletter style type had a shorter life in France as roman and italic typefaces gained popularity by French printers. Blackletter had pretty much became disused in France by around 1530.

Robert Granjon a printer based in Lyon attempted to restore blackletter’s popularity in 1557 by recreating the cursive Gothic handwriting style of the period. The font Granjon spoke of a “lettre française d’art de main” it was also know under the name of Civilité, and was popular for a short time but sank in to oblivion in the early 17th century.

Example of the first Italic script

by the start of the 15th century a new more flexible type of script began to emerge, commonly known as humanist. It’s basis was formed from ancient Roman capitals and Caroline miniscule script. In 1465 when Arnold Pannartz & Konrad Sweyheim started to set up their printing press in Subiaco, they realised that the popular German Gothic characters were not to the taste of Italian readers.

With this knowledge they set about creating the first font based on the new humanist script, the new faces were known as Antiqua or Roman faces and proved to be very successful, they remain a prominent typeface to this day.

Cursive variants created for the printer Aldus Manutius in 1499 became known in Calligraphic circles as Chancery script (Cancellaresca), this type face later became know as italic type. Although initially used in Italy, they soon crossed over the Alps and became very popular in France and Switzerland.

Over a period of time the somewhat ungainly and thick roman and italian faces were refined by French printers such as Simon de Colines, Robert Granjon and Claude Garamont.



Claude Garamond born 1480 Paris, died 1561 Paris

Claude Garamond was a French typographer from the 16th century – type founder, publisher, punch cutter, type designer.

Garamond was regarded as the best typecutter of his time. 1510: trains as a punch cutter with Simon de Colines in Paris. 1520: trains with Geoffroy Tory. 1530: Garamond’s first type is used in an edition of the book “Paraphrasis in Elegantiarum Libros Laurentii Vallae” by Erasmus. It is based on Aldus Manutius’ type De Aetna, cut in 1455. 1540: King Francis I commissions Garamond to cut a Greek type. Garamond’s ensuing Grec du Roi is used by Robert Estienne in three sizes exclusively for the printing of Greek books. From 1545 onwards: Garamond also works as a publisher, first with Pierre Gaultier and later with Jean Barbe. The first book he published is “Pia et Religiosa Meditatio” by David Chambellan. The books are set using typefaces designed by Garamond. After Garamond’s death, Christoph Plantin from Antwerp, the Le Bé type foundry and the Frankfurt foundry Egenolff-Bermer acquire a large proportion of Garamond’s original punches and matrices. The typefaces Garamond produced between 1530 and 1545 are considered the typographical highlight of the 16th century. His fonts have been widely copied and are still produced and in use today.