The Wallace Collection


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The World within your Hand: The Press

What comes to mind when you think of the Wallace Collection? Old Master Painting? Rococo decadence? Perhaps even the hardened steel in the armouries? Over a series of blogs, Helen Jones, our Library Cataloguer, will be exploring the books in the Collection; the processes and science behind them. Should our books be celebrated? Read on to make up your own mind!

The Press

On our journey to discover the mysteries behind our books, we’ve so far covered paper and ink and next up, and considered by many to be one of the most important inventions of mankind, is the printing press.


I think I would probably need a degree in engineering to explain exactly how a press worked, so I am not going to try (I would confuse both you and myself!). You can instead watch a wonderful demonstration of an early printing press at the Crandall Historical Printing Museum in Provo, Utah here. Printing presses had been improved by the 18th/19th centuries but this gives a basic idea of how the press functioned.

Suffice it to say that the forme was placed on a large flat stone (press stone) and inked using ink balls (leather pads mounted in wooden cups and handles, stuffed with wool or horse hair). The sheet of paper, slightly dampened to take the ink better, was then placed in a frame and lowered onto the forme. The assembled stone, forme and frame were then slid under the press itself and compressed so that the paper took up the ink. Once the sheet of paper was printed on one side, it then had to be printed on the other side so that the pages, once the sheet of paper was folded, would all be in the right order for the binder to make the finished book. The book was no good if the fronts and backs of the pages did not match!


I have made this sound very easy but the preparation of the press for printing was a lengthy and complicated job. Printing was also physically demanding, as using the press took great strength. Considering all this, it is not surprising that becoming a printer took many years of apprenticeship. One small thing to leave you to think about, which most people would never even consider, is how smelly an occupation printing was: imagine the smell of the ink (oil and burnt resin), the smell of the ink balls that had to be cleaned and kept supple using urine, the smell of hot metal and of men working hard…

Click here for the final post: book binding


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