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An 18th-Century Trades Sampler

a photographic essay by 1999 Colonial Williamsburg Teacher Institute participants

Introduction / Apothecary / Blacksmith / Founder / Harnessmaker / Milliner
Printer & Bookbinder / Shoemaker / Silversmith / Wigmaker / Summary

Printer & Bookbinder

Hear ye! Hear ye! All the news that's fit to print plus office supplies, magazines, maps, almanacs, bound books, stitch books, business forms, blank books and more! These are some of the products found in the 18th-century post office. Many of them are printed and bound in the press room and bindery.

William Parks was Williamsburg's first printer. He came to Williamsburg in 1730 to do government printing and commercial work. He also established a post office, a bindery and, for a few years, a paper mill. One of the most important products produced was a newspaper, the Virginia Gazette.

Pieces of type arranged in a composing stick formed words and sentences. Once the type was set it was put on a wooden tray called a galley. Type was slid from a galley on to an imposing table and locked in an iron frame. Then it was placed on the bed of the press. A worker called a beater applied ink made of lampblack and varnish. Varnish was made from linseed oil and resin. The beater used two wood-handled, wool-stuffed, leather-covered ink balls to beat ink on the type. Damp paper was attached to a leather-covered frame called a timpan.

The pressman operated the press. He laid the paper on the type, moved the bed under the platen, (a block of wood), and pulled the bar to lower the platen to make the impression on the paper. Each impression took about 15 seconds. The beater and the pressman, working together, produced 180 -240 sheet per hour.

The bookbinder took the printed pages and made them ready for sale in the post office. The binder's work included folding, pressing, sewing, and trimming the pages to construct the finished pamphlet or small book. Small inexpensive books were called "stitch books."

Binding books was a 28 step process. Groups of printed pages called signatures were laid on a sewing frame and stitched to cords at the back fold with linen thread. These cords formed horizontal ridges across the spine, a mark of a finely bound book even today. Covering material of bound books was made of thin leather (usually sheep or calf skin) or a combination of leather and decorated paper. The most common bound book sold in the post office was a blank book used by planters for their crop records, tradesmen for their business records, churches, and courthouses.

Paste paper was a common method of covering stitch books. Paint made from flour and water and dye was applied to paper. Special combs drawn across the paper created distinctive patterns. Just as bound books were more expensive than stitched books, a pamphlet or small book covered with paste paper was more expensive than one with no cover.

18th century pizza cutters? No, indeed. These are finishing tools used by binders to embellish and press designs on leather covers for fine bound books. The wheels were heated with fireplace coals in a small iron box (brazier). Occasionally, 23 carat gold leaf was pressed onto the leather covers as well.

Introduction / Apothecary / Blacksmith / Founder / Harnessmaker / Milliner
Printer & Bookbinder / Shoemaker / Silversmith / Wigmaker / Summary