The history of print from 1750 to 1799

Two major inventions made during the second half of the eighteenth century will lead to an enormous growth of the printing industry. The first is Alois Senefelder’s invention of lithography, which is still the dominant printing process today. The other is the invention of the Fourdrinier paper making machine, which puts an end to the shortages of a substrate that can be printed on.

1760’s – The first jigsaw puzzles

English cartographer John Spilsbury starts making jigsaw puzzles of engraved maps. These were used as teaching tools, alongside map board games which J. Jeffreys had started producing a few years before.

John Spilsbury jigsaw puzzle
Jigsaw puzzle of Europe

1763 – The Baskerville Bible

English printer and type designer John Baskerville prints a splendid folio Bible for the University of Cambridge. It is considered one of the finest books of the 18th century. Oddly enough Baskerville is an atheist himself. He is also an innovator,  developing a technique to produce a smoother whiter paper as well as creating a new style of typography featuring wide margins and leading between each line.

Baskerville folio Bible
Baskerville Bible (source: Wikimedia)

1765 – Rise of American newspapers and Nishiki-e prints

The average press run of American newspapers has risen to between 600 and 800. The aggregate circulation of all newspapers in America is estimated to be 14000 on a weekly basis.

That same year Japanese printmaker Suzuki Harunobu starts producing a series of famous Nishiki-e prints. Nishiki-e is a technique to print color images using a series of woodblocks that are each used to print one color. It is also known as Edo-e, in reference to Edo, the name for Tokyo before it became the capital.

Suzuki Harunobu - nishiki-e print

1772 – Patents for colored inks

In England, the first patent is issued for making colored inks. Full-color printing, as we know it today, is still a far way off as the pigments of those inks are not pure.

That same year a London newspaper called The Morning Post is founded. It is one of the endeavors of John Bell, a prolific publisher who revolutionizes the typography and display of English newspapers. One of the changes he popularizes is a switch from the ‘long s’ to the short or round one.

Long versus short s
Long versus short ‘s’ in two Encyclopædia Britannica editions (source: Wikimedia)

1783 – Roller printing

Printing on textiles becomes cheaper when Scottish inventor Thomas Bell patents a process that uses engraved cylindrical printing plates. This roller printing process replaces the earlier block printing technique. Up to six colors can be used to print repetitive patterns on cotton.

6-color calico print from 1878
A 6-color calico print

This is an example of such a press for printing on calico, which is plain-woven unbleached cotton. A mordant is spread evenly across a copper cylinder engraved with a design or pattern. A sharp blade (the doctor blade) scrapes the mordant off so it only remains left in the engraved parts. The roller revolves and is pressed against the calico, transferring the mordant to the cloth. This press seems to have three such units for printing three colors.

Roller printing press
Calico printing

1786 – First advertising agency

William Taylor starts the first advertising agency in the world. The advertisements use the same typeface as the remainder of the publications they appear in. They do not yet stand out the way current ads do.

1795 – Printing reaches Australia

The first printing press arrives in Sydney in 1788 but it takes until 1795 until a convict by the name of George Hughes teaches himself how to operate the wooden screw press. His successor, a shoplifter named George Howe, produces the first book printed in Australia in 1802 and its first weekly newspaper in 1803.

1796 – Invention of lithography

Alois Senefelder invents lithography and uses it as a low-cost method for printing theatrical works. Lithography is a printing technique in which an image is drawn on a stone (a lithographic limestone) using a coating of wax or another greasy substance. This makes those areas hydrophobic (water repellent but ink accepting) while the slightly roughened remaining parts are hydrophilic (water accepting). The stone is then moistened with water which the hydrophilic parts suck up. Next, an oil-based ink is rolled onto the stone. Only the greasy parts pick up the ink. Finally, a piece of paper is pressed onto the stone, and the ink transfers from the stone to the paper.

Lithographic printing stone
Lithographic stone

Lithography is faster than using etched copper plates. Senefelder could print up to 150 impressions per hour.

lithographic printing press

Lithography is still the dominant printing technique today. Meanwhile, the stone has been replaced by an aluminum or plastic plate and the image to be printed is created digitally, not by hand.

1798 – Bodoni typefaces

Giambattista Bodoni creates a series of typefaces that carry his name and that are still frequently used today. They are characterized by the sharp contrast between the thick vertical stems and thin horizontal hairlines.

Bodoni Book

Initially, Bodoni ran a state-owned printing house in Parma, Italy but his success enabled him to start his own company, Officina Bodoni. During his lifetime Bodoni designed and engraved 298 typefaces. A facsimile of Il Manuale tipografico (The Manual of Typography), which shows many of his designs, is still available today.

That same year the French government introduces the ‘grand registre’ paper size, which measures 420 by 594 millimeters. The aspect ratio allows you to fold the paper in half repeatedly and always retain the same proportions. The concept doesn’t catch on but the ‘grand registre’ will make a comeback in the 20th century as the ISO A2 paper size.

1799 – Invention of the paper making machine

The Frenchman Louis-Nicolas Robert invents a continuous paper making machine, based on a specially woven bronze mesh conveyor belt called ‘the wire’. An improved version is developed by his financial backers, the English brothers Sealy and Henry Fourdrinier whose Fourdrinier Machines become operational from 1803 onwards. The image below is from 1852 and shows to the left how pulp, made from linen or hemp rags, is poured on a woven wire conveyor belt. Water leaks away through the belt. Heated rollers smooth and dry the paper which is then rolled up. Modern papermaking machines are still based on this concept.

Fourdrinier machine
Fourdrinier paper making machine


2 thoughts on “The history of print from 1750 to 1799

  1. Sir,

    Would you please suggest me some book regarding these matters ? I am student of History and want to read more about it. I shall be very grateful if you suggest some books regarding print culture of late 18th and early 19th century

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *