Index Printing
Aspects of the Victorian Book
  Index   Printing
  Printing during the nineteenth century

At the beginning of the 19th century most printing was carried out in small, haphazardly adapted workshops, on heavy wooden hand presses, using traditional methods which had changed very little in 300 years. By the end of the century the industry was dominated by fewer, larger firms, operating in specially-built factories housing batteries of noisy machines, and where nearly all the processes were fully mechanised.

Much of the pressure for improvement came from the newspaper press, where rapidly rising circulation figures led to the development of rotary printing machines capable of producing up to 12,000 impressions an hour. By the middle of the century machine printing had also extended to conventional book production, with the introduction of cylinder and powered platen machines, and the much-improved Wharfedale cylinder press in 1858. Once the printing process had been mechanised it became necessary to speed up the manufacture of type, and the laborious process of composition which employed an estimated 10,000 men in London alone by the time linotype was introduced at the end of the century. But fundamental to all these advances was the mechanisation of paper manufacture, which began early in the century and led to a ninefold increase in production by 1860, with a desperate need for new raw materials to replace increasingly scarce rags. Experiments with all kinds of substitutes, from straw to potatoes, eventually resulted in the almost universal use of esparto grass and wood pulp.

The emphasis on speed was matched by remarkable technical developments, especially for reproducing illustrations. The two basic kinds of printing - relief (printing from a raised surface) and intaglio (printing under pressure from incised marks) - were constantly refined and adapted for use with machine presses. They were gradually joined by a third process of lithography, and by the end of the century all three involved the use of photography in transfering the original design to the printing surface. Above all, there was the commercial development of colour printing from the 1830s - for the first time brightly coloured texts and pictures were widely and cheaply available.

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