Friday, May 16th, 2014...2:53 pm
Grin and Bear It
Early printers often faced the problem of what to do with a page that only had a few lines of type on it–ideally you want a flat, even surface to print from. Oftentimes, they would use “bearer type,” type chosen more or less at random to fill out the page, perhaps lines of type from a book that already been printed but not yet returned to the typcases. When it came time to print the page, the bearer type would be left uninked. Sometimes you can see blind impressions of bearer type where the letters have pressed into the page.
I recently came across an example of bearer type where the printer forgot a crucial step–don’t put any ink on the type you don’t want to print! I noticed something odd in the table of contents for a 1550 alchemy book called Ciel des Philosophes.
Those last few lines at the bottom are just a mish-mash, as you can probably guess from the fact that several of them are upside down. With the help of the Gallica website, I was able to track down the source of the type that’s making an unexpected appearance here.
Most of it is from a book published by the same publisher the previous year, a famous book in typography and design known as Champ Fleury.
The final piece comes from a later section in the very same book as the printed bearer type, Ciel des Philosophes. That might seem paradoxical, but in fact the table of contents was usually printed after the rest of the book had been completed, to be sure of getting the page numbers right.
These kinds of accidents or mistakes can often be extremely useful for book historians, because of the insight they provide into the way printers went about their work.
[John Overholt, Curator of the Donald and Mary Hyde Collection of Samuel Johnson and Early Modern Books and Manuscripts, contributed this post.]