The history of print from 1850 to 1899

During the second half of the nineteenth century, the invention of the Linotype solves a major problem of the printing industry. Due to the ever-increasing speed of presses, typesetting had become a major bottleneck in the production process. The Linotype solved this problem for newspapers while book printers relied on hot metal typesetters from Monotype and others.

slug of type from a Linotype
image by Gerhard Doerries

During this era many magazines that are still in existence today are brought to market, including ‘Scientific American’ (1845, originally a 4-page  weekly), ‘Harper’s Magazine’ (1850), ‘National Geographic’ (1888) and ‘Vogue’ (1892).

First issue of the National Geographic magazine in 1888

Countries start implementing free and compulsory education, which broadens the group of people that can read and hence might be interested in printed matter.

1851 – The New-York Daily Times

The first issue is published of what will later become The New York Times.

1856 – Full-page ads

Robert E Bonner runs the first full-page ad in a newspaper. It promotes the New York Ledger, his own literary paper.

1858 – Gordon Jobber

Based on an earlier design by Stephen P. Ruggles, George Phineas Gordon produces the Franklin press, which is also known as the Gordon Jobber. The press uses a foot pedal to press the surface holding the paper against the flat inked printing plate. Only a single operator is needed, making this a perfect press for small print shops. Once the patents on this design expired other companies build presses based on Gordon’s design, such as the Chandler & Price letterpress below. Until the early 1900s, these were the workhorses in many print shops and some remain in use even today.

Example of a 'Gordon Jobber' printing press
The round disk distributes ink

1860 – Photozincography

A reproduction of the Domesday Book is the first publication that is printed using photozincography, a lithographic printing technique that uses zinc plates instead of stones. These plates are easier to move than lithographic stones and can handle larger print runs. They are the precursor to today’s aluminum offset printing plates. Photozincography is developed by the team of Henry James of the British Ordnance Survey. The picture below shows them in front of the photography building.

Ordnance Survey building

1864 – RR Donnelley is founded

R.R. Donnelley & Sons Company is founded in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It becomes one of the largest custom map-making companies in the United States and gradually expands into other markets. Nowadays it is a Fortune 500 company that is still heavily print-oriented, next to offering global marketing and business communication services.

1865 – Faster web presses

William Bullock perfects Hoe’s rotary press. His press doesn’t print on sheets but is fed by a roll of paper that is printed on both sides. The press then folds the paper and cuts sheets at a speed of up to 12,000 sheets an hour. Bullock dies during an operation to amputate his leg that accidentally got crushed in one of his presses.

Bullock rotary press

1867 – Agfa is founded

Agfa, the Aktiengesellschaft fur Anilinfabrikation, is founded in Rummelsburg, Germany. Originally the company focusses on producing color dyes but it will gradually become one of the leading manufacturers of film, printing plates, and large-format printers.

1874 – Production of corrugated board

Mass production of corrugated board starts. It is initially used to package bottles and glass lantern chimneys.

The image below dates from that same year. It shows lithographic printing and is printed by Prang and Mayer from Boston who specialized in architectural and educational prints as well as greeting cards.

litho print of a printing company by Prang and Mayer
Prang’s aids for object teaching – Source: American Antiquarian

1875 – Printing on tin

In England, Robert Barclay patents the first rotary offset lithographic printing press for printing on tin. As the name offset implies, in this press the tin substrate does not come into direct contact with the printing cylinder. In between is an offset cylinder covered with specially treated cardboard that transfers the printed image to the recipient. Cardboard later gets replaced by rubber, which is still the most commonly used material today.

1876 – Duplicating documents with the Mimeograph

Thomas Edison receives a patent for a printing mechanism that around 1890 will result in the mimeograph or stencil duplicator. The Mimeo name is a trademark of Albert Blake Dick who licenses Edison’s patents. European manufacturers such as Gestetner develop similar machines. They allow anyone to inexpensively print dozens or hundreds of copies of a typed page. These small duplicators remain popular until photocopying becomes affordable.

Edison Mimeograph

Wilhelm Koenig designs the first KBA web-fed rotary press. It is installed at the Magdeburgische Zeitung. By 1895 the company delivers its 5000th cylinder press.

KBA webfed rotary press

Golding & Co. introduces the Pearl letterpress, a small printing press that is available in two sizes. It has no throw-off or depressible grippers and two ink rollers. The press sells well but many commercial printers only consider it suitable for ‘bedroom printers’.

1877 – Creative advertising agencies

The J. Walter Thompson Company is the first advertising agency to have its own creative department staffed with copywriters and artists. It is also the first American agency to expand internationally with the opening of J. Walter Thompson London in 1899. Its founder James Walter Thompson is credited as the ‘father of modern magazine advertising.’ In 2018 the agency merged with digital agency Wunderman to form Wunderman Thompson.

1878 – Invention of photogravure

The Czech painter Karel Klíč invents photogravure, a process to faithfully reproduce the detail and continuous tones of photographs. To do so a copper plate is coated with a light-sensitive gelatin tissue that has been exposed to a film positive. The plate is then etched so that when ink is applied to the plate and wiped off, some ink will remain in the etched grooves and can then be transferred to paper.

A less successful invention from that same year is the Paige Compositor, one of the earliest attempts to build a typesetting machine. Using it a skilled operator can set text six times faster than by hand. Unfortunately, the machine is so complex that its reliability suffers.  American author Mark Twain is one of the financial backers of James W. Paige’s project.

Paige compositor - early typesetting machine

1883 – First practical use of halftone screening

Around 1850 William Fox Talbot had come up with the idea of halftone printing – reproducing the gray levels in a photograph using dots that vary either in size or in spacing. Various people worked on this concept, with the first screened photograph appearing in the New York Daily Graphic in 1873. The first one to develop a commercially successful way of reproducing pictures with relief halftones is the German Georg Meisenbach. He uses a glass plate with a fine pattern of lines during the exposure of a photograph to create a screened photograph. In 1883 the ‘Leipziger Wochenzeitschrift’ magazine is the first to print a black and white photo processed using this technique.

That same year T. & R. Annan in Glasgow is the first photogravure in Britain.

A printer in Wyoming runs out of white paper and prints a telephone directory on yellow paper instead. The concept is picked up by others and in 1886 Reuben H. Donnelley creates the first official Yellow Pages directory.

During this decade the McLoughlin Brothers publish The Little Folks’ Painting Book, the first-ever coloring book. The drawings are made by Kate Greenaway.

Little Folks - the first coloring book

1884 – Mechanical sewing machines

Hugo Brehmer develops the first mechanical thread-based sewing machine for bookbinding. The image below shows a sewing machine from a few years later.

book binding - sewing machine

1885 – Automating punch cutting

Linn Boyd Benton invents the pantographic punch cutter. With this machine, an operator can trace the brass pattern of a letter with one arm of the device. A cutting tool is mounted on another arm and it engraves the letter on the punch in a reduced size. The punch cutter can be adjusted to cut a complete series of sizes from one set of patterns. Those letters have a more uniform shape than the type that previously always had to be carved manually. The punch-cutting machine makes the mass-production of punches possible and it paves the way for the Linotype and other composing machines.

Frederick and Samuel Goss found the Goss Printing Press Company in Chicago, with the financial backing of Jacob Walser. Their first product is the Clipper, a press that can print double-sided by reversing one of its cylinders. After a few difficult years the Straightline Newspaper Perfecting Press, which debuts in 1892, firmly establishes the company as a leading manufacturer of newspaper presses. Newspaper were four-page weeklies at the beginning of the century but by this time they have become sixteen-page dailies.

1886 – Invention of the Linotype

Ottmar Mergenthaler invents the Linotype composing machine. With this typesetter, an operator can enter text using a 90-character keyboard. From a stock of letter form molds, the machine assembles a line containing the typed text. Molten lead is then poured over this line to create a slug,  a line of metal type. Once the operation is finished the matrices are returned to the type magazine from which they came. The machines are built in New York by the Mergenthaler Linotype Co. The name ‘line-o’-type’ is a pretty good description of what the machine does. It is widely regarded as one of the greatest advances in printing since the development of movable type 400 years earlier. With a Linotype a compositor can output at least 6000 characters per hour, three times more than working by hand.
Around that same time the Swiss company Orell Gessner Füssli patents the ‘Aac process’ that is used to create photochroms, also called photochrome prints. In this process, colorized images are produced from black and white photographic negatives via the direct photographic transfer of a negative onto a lithographic stone. Six to fifteen tint stones, each bearing an appropriate retouched image, are used to create the color print. The photochrom technique is very popular in the 1890s and mainly used for printing postcards of city scapes.

Old postcard of Bruges
Photochrome depicting the Groenerei in Bruges, Belgium

Lothar Meggendorfer’s International Circus is a pop-up book that contains six pop-up scenes of circus acts, including acrobats, clowns, and daredevil riders. Unfolded they form a circus complete with orchestra and spectators. It is not the first pop-up book to be published but thanks to reproductions, such as the 1979 version shown below, it is still available today.

International Circus - popup book

1890 – First flexo press

Bibby, Baron, and Sons build the first flexographic press.  This type of press uses the relief on a rubber printing plate to hold the image that needs to be printed. Because the ink that is used in that first flexo press smears easily, the device becomes known as Bibby’s Folly. Later improvements in the technology do make flexography one of the most used industrial printing processes.

That same year Robert Gair accidentally invents the pre-cut cardboard box.

Around this time the Miehle Printing Press & Manufacturing Co. is founded by Robert Miehle. The company builds flat-bed cylinder presses and from 1921 onward will also produce a series of popular vertical cylinder presses.

1892 – Eastman Kodak Company is founded

George Eastman changes the name of his company to Eastman Kodak Company, which later becomes Kodak.

George Eastman

That same year the first issue of Vogue, the American fashion and lifestyle magazine, is published. It begins as a weekly newspaper but in later years becomes a monthly publication.

Vogue - first issue

1893 – Addressograph

Addressograph International starts manufacturing the Addressograph, a machine that allows business to quickly print a series of addresses on envelopes, invoices, quotes or other documents. The system uses a chain with rubber stamps that are inked and then pressed on the substrate. The model shown below dates from 1896.


That same year the first Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog is published. The image below is from the 1895 edition when bicycles were added. The first color section appears in 1897, to show off shoes in black, brown, and red. The first specialty catalog for automobiles dates back to 1913 and the first Christmas catalog follows in 1933. The ‘Big Book’ catalog is discontinued in 1993 when the Specialty Catalog Group is formed.

Sears catalog - 1895 bicycles

Also popular during the second half of the nineteenth century is the Railway Library. The novels in this series use a cheap straw pulp cover, allowing publisher George Routledge to make the books very affordable.

Railway Library books

1894 – First European Linotypes

De Nederlandsche Financier in Amsterdam, Holland is the first newspaper on the European continent to start using a Linotype. Two years later the  Mergenthaler Setzmaschinenfabrik is founded in Berlin to cater for the European market.

Deutscher Buch- und Steindrucker is published for the first time. It is the precursor to ‘Deutscher Drucker’, still the leading German trade magazine.

1895 – Harris presses & D. Stempel AG foundry

Charles and Alfred Harris found the Harris Automatic Press Company to market the first printing press with an automatic sheet feeder.  The press is nearly ten times faster than handfed presses and the brothers have to understate its capabilities in order to get prospects to believe them. The company will produce many innovative presses before moving into the semiconductor business and selling off its printing division in 1983.

David Stempel founds the D. Stempel AG typographic foundry in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. It will employ important font designers like Rudolf Wolf and Hermann Zapf and is among the select foundries that produce matrices for the Linotype machine.

D Stempel AG foundry
D. Stempel factory in 1913

‘Yellow Kid’ by Richard Outcault is the first comic strip to use text balloons.

Yellow Kid

1896 – Lanston Monotype Machine Company

The Lanston Monotype Machine Company, founded by Tolbert Lanston in Washington D.C. in 1887, builds its first hot metal typesetting machine. In contrast to the Linotype which casts complete lines of type, the Monotype machine forms individual letters. That makes it easier to correct spelling mistakes by adding or removing an individual letter. This is an advantage for less time-critical work, such as typesetting books. The Monotype system consists of two components: the keyboard and the composition caster. Text entered using the keyboard is output on paper tape which can be fed into the caster which output slugs of metal type. Such a configuration allows multiple operators to typeset text that will be output on a single caster.
In 1896 Monotype issues its first typeface, Modern Condensed.

Monotype keyboard and caster

1898 – First car ad

The July issue of Scientific American includes an advertisement for the Winton Motor Carriage. This is generally considered to be the first ad for an automobile.

The first car ad ever published

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8 thoughts on “The history of print from 1850 to 1899

  1. I was White Rock Sun pressman in the late 1960 – 70’s in British Columbia. I operated a pre 1900 Goss Comet 8 page flat bed newspaper press until a local motorcycle club didn’t like the editorial and gave us a Molotov cocktail which destroyed the press. It was an awesome heavy duty machine. I have been trying to find some good images of one to show my grandsons what their old Poppa use to do when he was younger. If anyone has one please send.
    [email protected]

  2. Thank you for this excellent and fascinating site. Can you tell me when (and how) it was first possible to take an artist’s illustration and reduce it in size?

  3. Thank you for this page. I have spent over 50 years setting type and experienced many changes over the years. It is fun to see equipment that I started my career using. I started out with hand set type and Ledlows, then Linotype. After that all kinds of cold typesetting. Hot type was the best….

  4. Could you please provide publication information (date/author/sources) so that we can properly site this webpage (MLA, APA, Chicago)?

    1. This site is just a hobby, created for fun and because the subject matter is interesting to me. Adding footnotes does not add any joy to the creation process.

  5. I very much like this web page. I occasionally teach a class in printing process identification to conservation and forensic science professionals and will be happy to reference it to my students.

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