Jump to Navigation

Kansas Historical Quarterly - Early Imprints

by Robert T. Aitchison

February 1935 (Vol. 4, No. 1), pages 54 to 60
Transcribed by lhn; additional HTML by Susan Stafford;
digitized with permission of the Kansas Historical Society.

Kansas Historical Quarterly, February 1935I SHALL endeavor to give you the history, to show you the way the stage was set to bring on the invention of printing-to explain what effect it had on the Renaissance, and to touch the high points of its introduction into various countries and states down to our own Jotham Meeker, which will take you a long way back.

During the fourth and fifth centuries, the Vandals and Goths swooped down on Italy, destroying its culture; and for another five hundred years, until the time of the Crusaders, there was little change. When these Crusaders from France, Germany and England trekked across Europe they came in contact with the architecture of Rome, of Greece, and the simple, beautiful structures of the Orient, and going back to their own country they gave some of that beauty expression. Shortly after the Crusaders, we note the construction of Gothic architecture all over western Europe. To digress briefly here, I want to give you a picture of conditions of the people under King John.

A noble held his land by grant from his King, or in other European countries, from the emperor or Pope. The lower classes owned no land, and when a manor was transferred the serfs went with the manor. They could not even marry unless permission was given by their lord. Then came the signing of the Magna Charta; the feudal system was passing and a national spirit was arising in Spain, Germany, France and Italy. In the time between 1200 and 1400, many men rose above the crowd; names familiar to all of us: Petrarch, Boccacio, Chaucer and Dante; men of letters who have given us brilliant pictures of that time; pictures in words of the trend of thought of that age. As men began to think for themselves, writing became more general, the feeling spread that such writings must be placed before the people. When a man writes he wants others to read, to hear what he has to say, so writers began to look about for some cheaper process of reproducing these writings, to give them greater distribution.

At this time we find the first printing of wood blocks. Before the wood blocks we had manuscripts; very beautiful things, but on ac



count of the labor and expense involved in their preparation they could not be widely distributed. About the year 1400 the art of printing from wooden blocks came into being. Old ledgers tell us Jan Coster was known to have made letters of wood and to have set up a shop for the printing of block books. It is alleged that his workman, sworn to secrecy as to the process used in printing, afterwards stole the tools and equipment of his master and established himself at Mainz, but this tale is given little credence. The art of wood engraving was brought to much perfection by Albert Dürer at the end of the fifteenth century. These old wood engravings are beautifully executed, and were done by making the drawing on a block of wood, then part of the wood was chiseled or whittled out, leaving the drawing in relief. After the wood block for printing came in some printer had the idea of joining these pictures together-that is, joining the blocks together, and began to add words coming out of the mouths of the figures so pictured, much as words are pictured on balloons coming out of the mouths of figures in our modern funny strips.

In Germany, at Mainz, about the year 1450, a man named Johann Gutenberg printed from movable metal type, and is credited with the invention of printing. The mechanics of printing as practiced by Gutenberg are, in many ways, similar to those used to-day, and the size and shape of the type remains much the same. As I said, to Gutenberg is attributed the invention of printing, about 1450, and I have here a manuscript of that same period. (Holds it up.) See the similarity between the manuscript and the type. The earlier printers seem to have copied the lettering used in the manuscripts. Printing was a secret process and was held secret until about 1460. The first printer's mark used on this piece by Fust and Schoeffer is the mark of the printer's craft to-day, and is a very beautiful thing, I think. (Indicates mark.)

Gutenberg was a good inventor, but, like most inventors, a very poor business man. He borrowed eight hundred guilders from a man named Fust to complete his invention and later, for the purchase of supplies and payment of wages, borrowed another eight hundred guilders. From the court records it appears that Fust foreclosed on Gutenberg in 1455, and took over all his tools and equipment. Gutenberg had had in his shop a young man named Schoeffer, and following this time books began to appear under the name of Fust and Schoeffer, as printers, although there is nothing which definitely shows that Fust had very much to do with it, or did any of the


work himself. They printed Bibles, which were sold all over France and Germany, some being more widely distributed, and there are still forty-eight of them in existence, in whole or in part. They were fine volumes, printed on paper and vellum. Our own government purchased one a few years ago.

About the year 1462, during the strife between the rival archbishops, Diether von Isenburg and Adolph von Nassau, Mainz espoused the cause of the former, but was taken by the latter who had the support of the Emperor, lost its imperial privileges, and was thereafter subject to Archbishop von Nassau. The victorious archbishop sent many into exile, driving most of the able-bodied men out of Mainz, who carried with them to other lands the knowledge of the printing trade, which up to that time had been held secret. Within fifty years every city of consequence in Europe had printers, practically all being German. In fact, all the first printers in European countries were German.

After the art of printing became public property, Italy was among the first of the European countries to get printers, when Conrad Sweynheym and Arnold Pannartz went across the mountains into Italy, on their way to Rome. Before going to Rome they stopped at Subiaco and did some work for a monastery there.

In 1464 the King of France sent a young man to Mainz to learn printing from Gutenberg. This young man, named Jenson, did not return to France, but, later, went to Italy. We are not entirely certain whether he went to Sweynheym and Pannartz, or whether he went to Venice. But we do know that he cut some of the most beautiful type ever invented. This (holding up book) is a book printed in 1471. That is what we call "black letter" type. It shows how beautiful his black letter was. The binding is still in fair condition, having been super-imposed on oak boards. That (indicating) is a reproduction of his printer's mark. A very beautiful thing. The design is the same as that copied on a "Uneeda Biscuit" box. Jenson was a very successful man, and died quite wealthy. He was one of the first to bring beauty into a book, or into the cutting of type.

The next great printer in Italy was a man named Aldus. Italy at that time was the center of culture in Europe, and people went there to trade from all other countries of the time. In 1490 Aldus was running a college, when his father-in-law died and Aldus inherited his printing business. He was, perhaps, the outstanding man in the printing industry of that day. He printed books in many languages, and no workman was allowed to work on a book unless


he could speak that language. You can see that a workman had to be quite a linguist in order to hold a job in those days. He invented what is known as "Italic" type. In Europe they called it "Aldus" type. Before he invented "Italic" type this (displaying) was the size and general style of books, and only the nobles or very wealthy people could own them.

While we are looking at this book I want to show you the unique manner in which it is printed. The pages are rubricated throughout. I think, if we do not have to hurry too much, I would like to show you some of the very wonderful illustrations. Now this (indicating page of book) is what we call the "Tree of Life." See these lovely initials which go down the pages. Marvelous colors there. Those colors added by the illuminator were generally ground from semiprecious stones, the stones being crushed and mixed with the white of an egg, albumin; the coloring remains very clear and unfaded to this day. Compare the size of this huge tome with this small 8-vo Aldus printed in 1501, the year his italics were invented. The book in italics brought the price down so every man could own books-to about 60 cents in our present currency.

Printing scattered, in the first fifty years, all over Europe. It was, I think, most responsible for the Renaissance. From books on Ptolemy men got the desire of travel-soon came the discoveries by Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci-shortly after that the reformation started. By 1560 Mercator began to have printed his well-known maps, and these maps were widely circulated. They caused people to think about things outside their own town, their own country.

Here is a book by Martin Luther, printed in 1546, showing a very wonderful woodcut of Luther by his friend, the master, L. Cranach. (Shows book.) Things were moving very rapidly at that date; the center of printing had jumped from Italy to France by 1525. In the first half of the 1500's there were many printers who made wonderful strides in the art, and were outstanding craftsmen of all time: the Estienne's, de Colines, Vascosan, and others of Paris, and Roville of Lyons; Garamònd, who cut the finest Greek and Roman types; Tory with his beautiful initials which we still use in our case to-day.

The center of printing again moved from France to Holland about 1600, and much fine work comes to us from that period. Here is a little book that may give you some idea of the work done at Plantin's plant. This book had never been cut down, as so many of them were at that time, many of them being trimmed until the type was


cropped. You can see (indicating) that. it is just full of wood cuts, some of them very lovely things.

A man named Caxton came to the low countries to handle some matter of a wool treaty for England. He was not at that time a printer, but a man of consequence in the wool trade. However, he seems to have stayed in Bruges, and made translations of two books, The History of Troy and The Game and Playe of Chess, and later entered the service of the Duchess of Burgundy, a sister of the King of England, who granted him a yearly pension, and he there continued his History of Troy. About 1471 Caxton learned the art of printing, but at what date he brought his press to England and set it up at Westminster is uncertain; it was probably 1476. Caxton, while not the greatest printer of his time, did some great things for England and English literature, for through him purer copies of Chaucer were preserved for posterity. England is unique in two things-its first printer was a native son, and it is the only country which had its first book printed in its native tongue, as books until that time had been printed for the most part in Greek or Latin.

The first printing press in America was established in Mexico City, being brought over in 1539 shortly after the Spanish invasion. This press was sent to Mexico City from Seville, Spain, by a German printer named Kromberger. He sent an Italian, named Pablos, to run the press under contract. As I recall it he had to print 3,000 sheets daily, which was quite heavy printing in those days; he was to receive no salary, just his living expenses, and any moneys he made during the life of the contract had to be put into what we would call "surplus." If Pablos made a mistake, ruined any paper, or had a loss of any kind, that was to be taken out of his share of the final settlement. He was not to enter into any other kind of business; was to act as agent, without commission, for the sale of Kromberger's books, and this contract was to last for ten years, at the end of which time Pablos was to receive one-fifth of the net profits of the business. It was a rather hard contract, but he stuck it out, and later evidently owned the business himself. He was sent over to print religious tracts in the various Indian-Spanish tongues. I will show you a piece of printing from the first press in Mexico (indicating). It is not very good printing.

I will jump back to England, because, shortly after 1622 the first English newspaper was started, printed in book form and issued once a year. It was against the law to print anything of a local


political nature in England, so newspaper contents were limited to the happenings on the continent and in the Orient. The newspaper did not have a very wide sale, as it was hard to be interested in news over a year old. It was printed by Nathaniel Butter and Nicholas Bourne, who, with Archer, were the first three men to have anything to do with newspaper printing in England.

Getting back to America: Our first Colonial press was established in Cambridge, at Harvard University. In 1638 the Reverend Mr. Glover went to England and hired a printer by the name of Stephen Day, and his son Matthew, and secured a printing press. On the return voyage Mr. Glover died of smallpox, but his widow survived, and in about six months she decided to marry again. She married the president of Harvard University, and the first press was run there in 1639 by Stephen Day. This part of a book (displaying), printed in the Indian language, was found in an Indian tepee. These books were translations of the Scripture and various religious works by John Eliot, and were printed at Cambridge on the Harvard press.

Printing now rapidly spread all over the colonies; it went over the Alleghanies, and into the Mississippi valley about the year 1800. The first printer in Kentucky was John Bradford, who printed this first school book (holds it up), a grammar, in Kentucky about 1802. This third issue of the first newspaper west of the Mississippi was printed in July, 1808, by an Irishman, Joe Charless, at St. Louis, in the Louisiana territory. From there we get to our own state.

Our first printer was Jotham Meeker, who was born in Ohio, in 1804. He was twenty-six years old when our government established its Indian territory, west of Missouri and Arkansas, north to the Missouri river. Meeker, a missionary at heart, made a perilous trip from Cincinnati by boat and wagon to Shawnee mission, an outpost of the Baptist Missionary Board in the Indian country.

With him he brought his wife, and a small printing outfit. Meeker had learned the printing trade in Cincinnati when nineteen; had gone into Michigan at twenty- five, on missionary work, and there worked out a system of translating English into Indian.

With this system, the ability to speak three Indian tongues and his knowledge of printing, he opened his plant at Shawnee mission and printed his first job on March 8, 1834. This was fifteen years


before the "forty-niners"; thirteen years before the Mormon migration, and nine years before Frémont's expedition in 1843.

It is hard for us to appreciate the life the Meekers had to live, and to comprehend how he could work out a system of translation which made it possible for an Indian child to learn to read, as he put it "in a few days." You must realize that the "learning" on the part of the Indians had to be done simply and easily, as the Indian lacked patience for study and application.

Meeker's was a wonderful system, worked out to have a letter represent an articulate sound of the Indian's speech. This differed from the Cherokee, and all other systems. McCoy, in his History, says that twenty-three letters were all Meeker required for translation into any Indian tongue. Meeker translated and printed in nine different Indian tongues.

The first newspaper printed in Indian was printed by Meeker at Shawnee mission, The Shawnee Sun. Fifty-one books or pamphlets were printed while he ran the press, from 1834 to 1837, and at Ottawa from 1849 to the time of Meeker's death in 1855.

I will stop now, and let Mr. Kirke Mechem tell you about the Meeker press.


1. Address given at the annual meeting of the Kansas Historical Society, Topeka, October 16, 1934. Mr. Aitchison illustrated his talk with rare imprints from his private collection.