Bureaucracy: American Encyclopædia of Printing

American Encyclopædia of Printing. Ed. J. Luther Ringwalt. Philadelphia: Menamin & Ringwalt: J.B. Lippincott, 1871.


This late nineteenth-century encyclopedia claims to cover all aspects of publishing and printing. As the editor suggests in the preface, “as an Encyclopædia, it aims to traverse the circle of the art to which it relates, and therefore to describe its history, as well as its implements, its processes, and its products” (vii). As part of the Nineteenth-Century Book Arts and Printing History Series, this volume sold itself as a comprehensive resource for use in printing offices, and it thus gave special attention to current implements and processes of printing in the United States (vii). Openly jingoistic in its approach, the editor proclaims the book’s inclusivity: “no class of subjects bearing upon printing, however remotely, has been intentionally excluded” even though the “ever-increasing extension of the realm” of print “added greatly to the difficulty of a comprehensive presentation” (vii). The book opens with a section on “How a Book is Made,” and alphabetically-arranged articles provide in-depth descriptions of new printing processes like electrotyping and lithography as well as general topics like “Paper” and “Proof-reading.” Entries are often accompanied by illustrations that materialize the type of printing described: for example, the plate titled “Printing for the Blind” reads “[t]his Page was composed by Ν. Β. Κηεαςς, Jr. a Blind Printer” and is printed in relief legible to the touch; the page facing the description of “Safety-paper” displays a pattern of multi-colored lines and borders printed on glossy paper designed to prevent counterfeiting. Coupling physical examples of printing techniques with detailed descriptions, the American Encyclopædia exemplifies how printing was done in late nineteenth-century America.

The American Encyclopædia is part of a long tradition of books on the procedures and processes of printing, one that stretches back to the early English printer Joseph Moxon’s Mechanic Exercises, or the Doctrine of Handy-Works Applied to the Art of Printing (1683) and through the printing trade plates included in the French Encyclopédie of Diderot and d’Alembert. Like Moxon’s famous seventeenth-century compositor’s manual, the 1871 encyclopedia tries to cover as much ground as possible while also foregrounding cutting-edge techniques. Its alphabetical organization allowed for easy access to articles—as long as the reader already knew what to look for. As in Moxon’s time and our own, the late nineteenth century had its own peculiar printing jargon comprised of terms of the trade and words reflective of new technologies of production like the “Cottrell & Babcock First-Class Drum Cylinder Press” (129) or the “Dick Mailing Machine” (293) and new products like the “Pettee Patent Envelope” (159) or “Columbier” writing paper (113). The entries reveal how printing defined itself as a profession through bureaucratic means, ranging from patents on machines to publications like the American Encyclopædia itself.

Like many of the books in this genre, the 1871 American Encyclopædia is a celebration of the transformative power of print. The book’s frontispiece “reproduces in color the design of the beautiful vignette upon the certificate of membership issued by the Philadelphia Typographical Society” (viii). The illustration shows a grouping of people of different races and ethnicities gesturing to—and, in the case of the man of African descent, kneeling in front of—a wooden hand press complete with a type case and open frisket. These representatives of the world’s cultures have laid down their weapons of war in front of a pile of books, while a woman representing French liberty holds a printed broadside with the words “The Art of all Arts.” The caption to the engraving reads: “And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” The world-historical importance of printing announces itself in the conventions of high Victorian, Anglo-American imperialism; printing is figured as a civilizing, liberating force on par with the divine power of the Christian God.

Find American Encyclopædia of Printing in the UNT Libraries Catalog.