A practical look at the Practical Science of Printing

title page

title page for Fertel, La science pratique de l’imprimerie

In 1723, a Frenchman named Martin-Dominque Fertel published a book on printing, La science pratique de l’imprimerie. It’s good to look at early printing manuals, especially when one is trying to understand how early printing works, so I was delighted to learn that the Folger acquired a copy of the book from the Veatchs in September 2012. When I called the book up from the vaults, I saw that it was housed in a specially-made case:

Case for the Folger copy of Fertel's La science pratique de l'imprimerie

The Folger copy of Fertel’s La science pratique de l’imprimerie

But why was the book in a box? 

a book in sheets

a book in sheets

The book needs a box to protect it because it does not have a binding to protect it—this is a book still in sheets! In other words, this copy of Fertel’s book has never been fully bound: you could take apart each gathering and unfold it to show its quarto imposition. (If you look closely—you can click on all images in this post to enlarge them in a new window—you can see the point holes left along the horizontal fold from when the paper was placed on the tympan. There are also a couple of holes along the vertical fold, most clearly visible in the lower half, that correspond to the line of holes you can see in the photo above. The book once had sewing threads through the gatherings, according to some manuscript notes that came with the book, but those are now gone.)

gathering **, unfolded to show the quarto imposition

gathering **, unfolded to show the quarto imposition

That in itself is pretty cool, but what makes this book really fun is that it lets us see how complicated things can get. Here is the B gathering as you encounter it in the stack, nicely folded and ready to be bound.

B gathering

B gathering

Do you see that stub folded over outside the first leaf? If we follow it, we find the rest of the paper after the 3rd leaf of the B gathering, and we can see what that is: there is an illustration of type case layouts that needs to come after the 4th leaf.

illustration facing page 14

illustration facing page 14

Look at the size of that chart—and I haven’t even unfolded it all the way! That’s not a illustration that fits into the page area of the rest of the book, and so it has been printed separately and now exists as its own leaf that needs to be properly located in the book. (That’s pretty easy to do, since the illustration is labeled “page 14″ and indicates that it should be adjacent to the text’s page 14.) So the illustration has been inserted in the correct location, and its end has been wrapped around the fold of the gathering so that it can be sewn into the binding along with the rest of the gathering.1

Now that we’ve identified that stub, we might as well look through the rest of the gathering. When we turn over the second leaf, we find two more stubs, one wrapped around the other (you can see both stubs most clearly on the lower third of the page).

more stubs after B2

more stubs after B2

So what’s going on here? Facing page 12 is another illustration of case layouts. When we unfold that illustration, we can see some of the complications here: it’s large, but it’s also an engraving (you can see the plate marks if you look closely).

illustration facing page 12

illustration facing page 12

Since engravings are printed on a rolling press, not a common press, this illustration was printed separately from the letterpress portions of the book and now exists as its own leaf that needs to be incorporated into the book in the proper location. (This is actually a large illustration that looks like it could be bound not as a chart that folds out, but as two conjugate leaves; this is how it’s been bound in this copy in Gallica.)

So that explains the inner of the two stubs. But what’s the stub that was wrapped around this plate? It belongs to this huge illustration facing page 13.

illustration facing page 13

illustration facing page 13

At this point, with one illustration fully folded out extending to the left of the opening, and the other chart folded out extending to the right, we have an object that is so sprawling, I had to stand back from the table to try to get it all in one picture.

the whole megillah

the whole megillah

If you’d like to read the book, you can find lots of digitized copies of it. I recommend Gallica’s digitization, which is in color with carefully unfolded illustrations. If you compare it to any of the other freely available copies, you’ll see what I mean. (Gallica also lets you download a copy of the whole thing as a pdf.) Exploring a way to digitize our copy so that users can experience its assembly is on my list of things to do—wouldn’t it be great to be able to unfold and reassemble the sheets? At the very least, digitizing our copy would make it more useful to read.

It’s really a wonderful thing to find a book that’s still in sheets. It’s extra wonderful that it’s a book about printing. And it will be extra extra wonderful if this becomes a digital object that explores the possibilities of digitization.

  1. This arrangement leaves the final leaf of the B gathering unattached to any of the other B leaves—it should be conjugate along the spine to B1 and along the top to B3. To insert the plate in its spot, the connection to B1 would have to be cut; I’m guessing that the connection to B3 has split of its own accord over time and with handling. []

Author: Sarah Werner

SARAH WERNER is Digital Media Strategist at the Folger Shakespeare Library and Editor of The Collation, and formerly the Library's Undergraduate Program Director. She blogs about books and reading, writes about modern performance and Renaissance drama, and is known in some corners of the web as @wynkenhimself.

One Comment

  1. Nice work. I followed your explanation perfectly. I love this book but never did the analysis that you provide here. Brava.

    Dan

%d bloggers like this: