England Occupations Paper, Printing, Bookbinding (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military & Services  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Paper, Printing and Bookbinding[edit | edit source]

The production of books was greatly facilitated after William Caxton set up his first wooden printing press in Westminster in 1476. All those taking part in producing books, including parchment and paper-makers, quill-dressers, illuminators, engravers and binders, as well as those who sold them, were called stationers because they set up vending stalls or stations in the area of St. Paul’s in the City of London. They formed the powerful Stationers Company in 1556 but were still under the rule of the church in regard to book pricing, appointment of typefounders and disallowing anything smacking of heresy. Stationers prospered as long as they toed the church’s line, and all went well until in 1632 a careless printer omitted the word not from the Seventh Commandment in a new edition of the bible, thereby making it read Thou Shalt Commit Adultery. Archbishop Laud was furious and even took the matter to the Star Chamber, but the fuss blew over with a heavy fine for the printer, and the Stationers Company still survives today, see Public Record Office leaflet D45. The Stationers’ Company has its own archive and just off Fleet Street the St. Bride Printing Library has records from 1554-1920 and is the most extensive national source on printing techniques, the printing trade, directories of printers etc. (Green). They have indexes of the Stationers’ Company Registers up to 1800 with actual registers on microfilm. Directories of book trades craftspeople include Maxted, Plomer, Brown, Duff, Todd, Ramsden, and Pendred. The apprenticeships of one part of the paper trade not in the Stationers’ Company, the Makers of Playing Cards’ Company 1675-1760 have been indexed by Webb (Makers of Playing Cards Company 1675-1760; Musicians Company 1765-1800; Saddlers Company 1657-66, 1800; Tobaccopipemakers Company 1800. Society of Genealogists, 1998).

Bookbinding[edit | edit source]

Bookbinding comprises:

  • Folding, flattening and sewing the sheets of paper or parchment, which is often the specialty of women book folders and sewers.
  • Gluing the backs and rounding the spine.
  • Trimming and maybe gilding or otherwise decorating the edges of the pages
  • Adding the headband; adding pasteboard covers and covering them with cloth, calf-skin or other material.
  • Pasting in the end-papers, which could be plain or specially-made fancy marbled designs.
  • Lettering and decoration of the outsides (Hurley 1991, Wymer 1949).

The trade was one carried out by hand in towns and cities until the 18th century when machines started to automate the mass market work. Most 20th century books are cloth-covered by machine but there are still hand binders working in studios scattered all over the country catering to the luxury and conservation trade. My brother, John Gardner, has written on his experiences as an apprentice bookbinder and included a number of good illustrations of the craft.

Paper and Parchment[edit | edit source]

Parchment is made from treated skins of sheep and goats and in the Middle Ages its making was an integral part of the tannery in a sheep-rearing district. Vellum is a fine parchment made from the treated skins of young calves and goats. The skins are split with a sharp knife, with the upper part becoming parchment and the lower converted into chamois leather for glove-making and other uses (Wymer 1949). The production of parchment declined from the 17th century, it being used only for superior products such as certificates, lampshades and book binding, with vellum for deeds.

Paper has been made by hand since the 1490s, with watermills providing the power for beating the constituents—wood pulp, woollen rags, old ropes, paper waste, linen and cotton rags. Little was produced until the end of the 17th century when French immigrants brought technical improvements (Hey). Water power was used until well into the 19th century but as the demand for paper for writing, printing, wrapping and other uses increased some corn and other mills were converted to this use. Handmade paper is still used for better quality applications such as fine notepaper, bank notes, wallpaper, drawing and ledger paper (Wymer 1949).

The process involves:

  • Sorting the rags and removing buttons and other unwanted items, a job usually done by women ragpickers.
  • Mixing and beating the ingredients in water for up to 36 hours in a succession of vats to emerge as a thick, milky pulp.
  • The vatman dips his square sieve mould into the pulp and skillfully extricates an even layer.
  • The coucher adds this to a layer of felt, then adds another felt to sandwich it, then another paper layer until a pile, or post, sufficient to press is formed.
  • The water is expressed and the sheets then proceed through the mill to be layered and sized and emerge as fine paper.

Details on methodology are given by Wymer (English Town Crafts. A Survey of Their Development from Early Times to the Present Day.. Batsford, London, 1949), Stirk (Old Occupations: The Papermakers. Family Tree Magazine Vol 6. Part I in #6, page 4-5; Part II in #7, page 4-5; Part III in #8, page 4-5) and Hurley (The Book of Trades or Library of the Useful Arts. Vol II. Wiltshire Family History Society, 1991). Mechanization in huge mills was a feature of the 19th-20th centuries paper being produced in a continuous web, with huge rolls shipped to printers and other customers. Chaloner (People and Industries. Frank Cass, London. FHL book 942 U3ch), Brennan (The Paper Trail. Bygone Kent. Part 1 in Vol 19 #8, page 453-457; Part 2 in Vol 19 #9, page 545-549; Part 3 in Vol 20 #5, page 251-255; Part 4 in Vol 20 #10, page 570-576) , and Stirk (Old Occupations: The Papermakers. Family Tree Magazine Vol 6. Part I in #6, page 4-5; Part II in #7, page 4-5; Part III in #8, page 4-5) give histories of the modern industry.

Paper has been made in every county of England except tiny Rutland, wherever there was a supply of the water and power necessary for the process close to a city to ensure a good supply of old clothes and manufacturers’ waste material. The paper-making trade concentrated around London as the newspaper business flourished in the 19th-20th century. Hand paper makers suffered when the industry was mechanized and a tramping system operated to spread out the work. This is described by Stirk who also runs an index of papermakers.

Printing[edit | edit source]

At first printing was done with wood blocks, each one suitable for just one purpose, and the printing of textiles continued in this way until the mid-20th century. The mid-15th century invention of the printing press using movable type meant that the letters could be re-used. A group of new crafts evolved for letter-press printing:

  • Typefounders who cast the individual letters, called types, made of a blend of the metals lead and antimony, as described by Hurley (The Book of Trades or Library of the Useful Arts. Vol I. Wiltshire Family History Society, 1991) and Wymer (English Town Crafts. A Survey of Their Development from Early Times to the Present Day. Batsford, London, 1949)
  • Compositors arranged the letters in a frame known as a form ready for printing (Wymer 1949, Hudson 1996).
  • Printers or pressmen spread the ink, a mixture of oil and lamp black, evenly over the form then applied this to each sheet of paper in turn (Wymer 1949, Hudson 1996). The printing was therefore done from raised surfaces.

Printing from engraved metal plates also dates from the 15th century, being used mainly for pictorial work with copper plates fixed in a rolling press (Hurley 1991).

  • Engravers used various tools to scratch pictures on copper plates (Wymer 1949, Hudson 1996).
  • Copper Plate Printers used the engraved copper plates to print the pictures (Hudson 1996).

Related techniques were etching and aquatinting, and steel engraving. In lithography a design is drawn with a waxy ink or crayon on stone, then the stone is sponged with water which moistens only the non-design areas. Printing is achieved by rolling with an ink which is repelled by dampness so it adheres only to the waxy design. Litho was primarily an art medium so is used where elegance is sought.

London is the printing capital of Britain, but it is an important trade in several other towns and cities as well. In 1814 The Times set up the first steam-powered printing machine in Fleet Street, which heralded the demise of the hand press, and was later overtaken by gas and electricity. There was significant growth in the printing trade during the 18th century so that by 1800 every market town had its own printer. He would print all kinds of notices, stationery, guidebooks and the local newspaper and retail these as well as writing paper, ink, pens and books from one shop. He may also have sold a wider selection including cheeses, tea and medicines and acted as a theatre or stage coach agent.

Establishments varied in size from the minimum it took to work a press, (two—a master and journeyman), up to the London firms which employed 60 compositors and 40 pressmen. The 19th century brought the spread of literacy, improved transport and abolition of the newspaper tax in 1855, and these lead to greater demand for the trade which in turn encouraged specialization. The printing trade had divided into three parts by about 1860 - book printing, newspaper printing, and jobbing printers who turned out what is now referred to as ephemera, the short-lived single-sheet items such as playbills, posters and leaflets.

Bailey (The Industrial Heritage of Britain. Ebury Press/Book Club Associates, 1982) gives some early history of printing and Lazell (My Printing Forebears. Family Tree Magazine Vol 13 #6, page 3-5), and Hudson (The Victorian Printer. Shire Publications, 1996) delve more deeply into the later developments. Marriott (The British Printer. Family Tree Magazine Vol 12 #7, page 51-52) wrote about The British Printer, a trade magazine founded in 1888 and still going strong, that has much information on printer ancestors, and Pullen (John Henry Banks: Engraver and Artist. North West Kent FHS Vol 2 #6, page 202-203) has investigated the gems in the Print Room of the British Museum. Hudson (Where We Used to Work. J. Baker, London. FHL book 942 U2hk, 1980) devotes a chapter to the printing of early 20th century newspaper and magazines.


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Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military and Services offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

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