Everything There Is to Know About Letterpress Printing

Christian Friedrich Gessner, Der in der Buchdruckerei wohl unterrichtete Lehr-Junge oder: Bey der löblichen Buchdruckerkunst nöthige und nüzliche Anfangsgründe.

Leipzig 1743, printed and published by his own publishing house.

Today, 4,900 books are said to be published around the world every a single day. That’s impressive! And it’s only possible because producing a book has become incredibly cheap. Think about it: anyone who somewhat knows how to use a computer can write a book and self-publish it as an e-book or a print on demand. The work we present to you in this article demonstrates how difficult the production of books used to be.

If you leaf through it carefully, you will feel a deep sense of awe for what letterpress printing used to be. Book printers were much more than simple craftsmen. They were the true masters of the word, the congenial partners of great thinkers who needed extensive knowledge to turn a manuscript that was difficult to read into a successful book.

Title engraving of the “Art of Letterpress Printing”.

What a Book Printer Had to Know to Start His Apprenticeship

The engraving on the title page shows us what a young man needed to know to even be considered for the profession of a printer: We see a small boy being led by the hand by a lady dressed in antique costume. Around her right wrist we can see the tool used by a typesetter to indicate the line of a manuscript to be typeset. The lady is Carmenta, a Roman deity. She is said to have developed the first Roman alphabet, which was derived from Greek. All scholars knew this lady because she was one of the personalities mentioned by Boccaccio in his book on famous women.

Carmenta leads the boy to a staircase that represents the path to become a printer’s apprentice. A learning objective is indicated on every step: reading, writing, understanding foreign languages, declination, conjugation and the ability to express yourself in a foreign language. Only if the boy mastered these six things was he worthy of devoting himself to the art of letterpress printing.

An Introduction for Beginners?

Although the author of this work, Christian Friedrich Gessner, seems to be addressing apprentices with the title of his book, one quickly notices that this book wasn’t meant to be for beginners but was intended to be a compendium on letterpress printing.

We hardly know anything about the author except for the fact that he had a lot of experience. Gessner lived in Leipzig between 1701 and 1756 and ran a book printing and publishing business there. He wrote several books on letterpress printing. However, we don’t know if Gessner made use of contributions of other authors for his works. But since this is not relevant for our purposes, we will refrain from going into the details of this question.

Why a Leipzig Printer Dedicated His Work to the Frankfurt Book Printers

The question of why a Leipzig printer decided to dedicate his work to his competitors in Frankfurt is very fascinating. We may assume that this was a ploy to attract customers. Frankfurt had almost as many printing businesses as Leipzig, and taking pride in Gessner’s dedication was probably reason enough for them to buy his book.

To this day, the most important German book fairs are held in these two cities. This tradition dates back to early modern times. In the middle of the 18th century, Leipzig conquered first place. It was considered the capital of the German book trade. Nevertheless, Frankfurt was still an important centre of book printing, which means that there were many potential clients in the city. Thus, pleasing these customers by means of a dedication was very clever.

Fonts and the Right Ink

What did a letterpress printer need to know? We’ll use some examples to demonstrate that. He had to be able to select the right typeface and font for the heading and the text from a wealth of possible options (fig. 1 and 2). He then had to distribute the text on the sheets in such a way that the pages were in the right order after folding them. He could look up in Gessner’s manual how to arrange the letters and how many of them in which font would fit on which format (fig. 3 and 4). And he obviously had to operate the printing press (and repair it when necessary). And, of course, every printer had to make his own ink, which he used to print the letters on the paper (fig. 5).


Letterpress printing changed writing habits by regulating them. As long as one wrote by hand, one could do whatever you wanted. For example, you could write large and small letters but also all sorts of intermediate forms. The reader wanted to understand the content, and since the text was read out loud, writing was more about giving an onomatopoeic rendering of the words than about adhering to rigid orthographic rules.

Letterpress printing standardized the German language, although historians of the 19th century liked to give Martin Luther undeserved credit for this development. Gessner contributed to this by dedicating a whole chapter to orthography. You can also find a dictionary on how to translate medieval German to modern German.

Way More Than Latin

This pages show us that a printer had to master more than the Latin alphabet. Gessner gave an overview of different alphabets that a good printer had to be familiar with, including the Greek, Arabic and Hebrew alphabets.

But there’s more: Gessner also wrote about the Chinese script and about the alphabets of languages that are long forgotten today. Examples include the Wendish and the Moravian alphabets.

Of course, a printer also had to master musical notation; and those who wanted to print calendars were glad that Gessner gave them instructions for calculating which days in a given years the church festivals fell on.


Those who got through their apprenticeship were absolved by the guild. The tradition of the “Gautschete”, the act during which a book printer’s apprentice becomes a journeyman, is still practised today. However, this strange custom, during which a new journeyman is exposed to a lot of usually very cold water, took place after the actual ceremony, which was held in the guild room in front of all members of the guild. Gessner’s book provides several suggestions for speeches to be held at such a festive ceremony. The end of the apprenticeship was then celebrated with a large banquet.

Most journeymen remained employees for the rest of their lives. Only a few of them opened their own printing house. They are the true heroes of the early modern era. Without letterpress printers, neither humanists nor Reformers or thinkers of the Enlightenment would have been able to develop the intellectual clout with which they changed the mindset of their contemporaries.


Other Things You Might be Interested in

You can download Gessner’s work on letterpress printing from the Munich DigitiZation Center.

A while ago, the Getty Museum featured an exhibition to trace the development from illuminations to print illustrations.

An exhibition by the Central Library Zurich asked how printing shaped the Reformation in Zurich.

In a workshop at Leipzig’s Museum for of the Printing Arts, our author experienced first-hand just how much work traditional letterpress printing is (in German).

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