An Introduction to Printing: From Gutenberg to the 19th Century

Recording thoughts and language is an innate human behavior. The act of printing these thoughts can be traced to as early as c.3100 BCE with cuneiform (system of writing first developed by the ancient Sumerians of modern-day Iraq) on clay tablets.
The Chinese were among the first to develop printing materials including ink, paper (c.100 CE), and wooden blocks for printing symbols and images. The process of printing and creating what we consider present-day books developed over hundreds of years, led by the Chinese, until the 1400s and the development of Johannes Gutenberg’s mechanical press.

When Gutenberg, a goldsmith, began experimenting with printing in the 1430s, there were challenges to mechanical printing, including: the need for durable metal type that could be consistently mass produced; need for a reusable mold to cast letters with identical length and dimensions; the need for a new ink to transfer from the metal type to paper without smudging; and a press that would uniformly transfer the inked letters onto paper. Gutenberg successfully met all of these challenges, and created a press that was able to produce pages of text at a remarkable speed. His technology spread quickly and launched the beginning of a worldwide movement of information and learning, which was refueled during the 19th century.


Over the next few hundred years, printing continued to be refined, becoming increasingly mechanized, when the boom of the Industrial Revolution launched it to a new height. The book making industry grew throughout the 19th century due to both changes in technology and a dramatic increase in literacy. At the beginning of the 1800s, books were still manufactured using many of the same processes developed in the 1500s. In the 1820s and 30s, technological innovations transformed plate making, papermaking, book binding, and printing. These advances, which involved machinery, changes in the division of labor and materials used, allowed for the production of more volumes at less cost, yet maintained the high quality of the period.

By the end of the 1800s, books had changed from hand-made objects to mass-produced industrial products, yet their value to the Victorian reader only increased, as these volumes were considered treasured materials, exposing them to a wealth of knowledge never experienced.

n 1815, Auburn was the largest village in Central or Western New York. Rochester and Syracuse had not yet been incorporated as villages, Buffalo had been reduced to ashes and Geneva and Canandaigua were behind the “loveliest village” in population and general business activity. Auburn was a thriving settlement, not only located on the grand highways of travel and trade, but well placed in the heart of a fertile and rapidly filling country.

The press was important in Auburn from the beginning, the first newspaper established in 1808, and first book published in 1815. The creation of a library predated a church, and a paper mill was built before the railroad opened. Intellect and education were founding tenets of this city, and by 1850 had established herself as a leading book publisher in the nation.