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Unseen Hands: Women in the Print Shop

Tucked into a softly-lit second floor gallery of


University’s Firestone Library, "Unseen Hands: Women Printers,

Binders, and Book Designers" is a jewel of an exhibit. With more

than 100 books, broadsides, posters, and illustrations on display,

the exhibit presents fascinating testimony of women’s craft and labor

in the printing trade.

Running the chronological gamut from Latin texts printed by Florentine

nuns to feminist manifestos, the exhibit colorfully documents the

efforts of women as printers, typographers, publishers, and


All the pieces were culled from Princeton’s rare books and special

collections, the largest private university collection in the state,

according to exhibit curator Rebecca Davidson. Many came from the

collection of Miriam Y. Holden, the wife of a Princeton alumnus who

gave the university her extensive collection on the history of women.

The earliest works on display are from the late 1400s, just a few

decades after Johannes Gutenberg — a Mainz businessman who later

went bust — modified a wine press and devised a technique to mold

and cast moveable type. Sallust’s "Conspiracy of Catiline"

is here in the original Latin, printed by the nuns in Florence’s San

Jacopo di Ripoli convent.

The so-called "Book of St. Albans" is here as well, a 1496

compilation on hawking, hunting, and heraldry that is alleged to be

the first book printed by a woman in England. The dense medieval type

is almost impossible to read — but it illustrates printing’s early

and radical shift to the vernacular.

But as "Unseen Hands" make clear, printing before the 19th

century was by and large a family affair. Many of the women exhibited

from the 15th to the 18th centuries were first printers’ daughters

and then wives, permitted by the guilds that ruled the industry to

continue the family business after they were widowed.

Helizabeth de Rusconibus, for instance, whose 1527 edition of Ovid’s

"Metamorphosis" shows a crude woodcut of the flying Mercury,

maintained her husband’s print shop in Venice after his death.

Iolande Bonhomme, prominent during the French Renaissance, continued

her husband’s Parisian press after he died in 1522. Her displayed

"Book of Hours" from 1523 — though not as lavish as other

celebrated editions — is a tour de force of different colored

text, as well as of type sizes and styles.

Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) was not a printer, but she upheld

a family legacy of her own, that of illustration and scientific


The daughter of a German naturalist and printmaker, the adventurous

Merian revolutionized both entomology and zoological illustration

by being the first to detail insects’ metamorphic changes.

At age 52, she set off for Surinam, accompanied only

by her daughter — an unheard of voyage for two women alone. Two

of Merian’s gorgeous hand colored copperplate engravings are here

from her 1705 "On the Metamorphosis of Insects of Surinam."

One shows a flowering thistle studded with insects in various


stages. Another is of a rearing crocodile, jaws clamped on a writhing

coral snake that’s helped itself to a succulent crocodile egg.

On this side of the Atlantic, Ann Smith Franklin — Benjamin’s

sister-in-law — ran a press in Boston (from which apprentice


ran off to Philadelphia) with Benjamin’s brother, her husband James.

After being jailed in Boston, the couple moved to Newport where they

became Rhode Island’s official printers, producing its first


When her husband died, leaving her with five children, Franklin


the family press. Her largest commission was 500 copies —


by the Widow Franklin," according to the 1745 frontispiece —

of the colony’s acts and laws.

As far back as the Renaissance, men and women had specific tasks in

the trade, according to Davidson, 54, who has a doctorate in


history from Cornell University and is also curator for Graphic Arts

for the university.

"Men `cast’ the type which involved blacksmithing, pouring hot

lead into the mold," she says. Men also managed the extremely

tough task of making paper (a Chinese invention), dipping a heavy

flat mold into a vat with water and rags (later linen) that had been

pounded into pulp.

Women "set" or composed the type as well as "dressed"

it, polishing off the rough metal edges or "burrs" still stuck

when type came out of the mold. Women also typically folded paper

and stitched bindings.

But by the early 1800s, women in both Europe and America found


being shut out of the industry. Technological advances like steam

presses, as well as the booming demand for books and newspapers, had

moved printing out of family shops and into the hands of male-only


British printer Emily Faithfull was committed to teaching women the

trade as an alternative to prostitution or domestic service. The fact

that she employed both women and men — a framed woodcut from the

Illustrated London News shows them bent around a large table, working

together — scandalized some contemporaries and enraged union


who sabotaged Faithfull’s shop and damaged her presses.

Faithfull’s vindication came in 1862 when she was appointed "Printer

and Publisher in Ordinary to Her Majesty" Queen Victoria. She was also

quick to adopt new technology, producing the vivid blues and greens in

the displayed cover illustration of the 1868 "Te Deum

Laudamus" with chomolithography, a technological innovation that

used separate stones to print more vivid colors. The process made it

possible to

mass produce inexpensive color prints.

In America, reporter and typesetter Augusta Lewis Troup helped Susan

B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton found "The Revolution,"

a feminist newspaper whose January 8, 1868, inaugural edition is on

display. "A woman has voted in regular form [in Britain] and


the paper proclaimed, "and the British realm survives the


Elected corresponding secretary of the International Typographical

Union in 1869, Troup was the first woman to hold national union


The 19th-century explosion in domestic sensibilities, as well as the

public’s growing appetite for children’s literature and consumer


created new opportunities for women for printing. "These were

subjects deemed appropriate for women to illustrate or write


Davidson says. "And once they got their foot in the door, they

did a lot of other things too."

American illustrators Elizabeth Shippen Green and Jessie Wilcox Smith,

who called themselves "the Red Rose Girls" after an inn they

frequented in Villanova, Pennsylvania, enjoyed phenomenal success

during the late 19th century and the first decades of the 20th.

Along with illustrating books, Green secured an exclusive contract

with Harper’s Magazine, producing hundreds of covers in over 20 years

with the magazine.

Smith’s idealized portraits of children and domestic scenes graced

Collier’s and Ladies’ Home Journal, as well as more than 40 books,

including the displayed 1905 edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s


Child’s Garden of Verses" and the 1912 "Dickens’s


Her illustration of "Little Em’ly" from "David


shows a mischievous young girl boldly balanced on a rough plank


out over water — a far cry from the liturgical and allegorical

woodcuts from earlier centuries.

Fine presses also flourished in the first half of the

20th century. In Ireland, Elizabeth Corbet Yeats — sister of poet

William Butler — managed first the Dun Emer and then the Cuala

hand press, employing women and contributing to the Celtic


A poem she printed shows her handpainted and illustrated drop-cap


Virginia Woolf and husband Leonard founded the Hogarth Press in


also originally devoted to handprinting. The success of Virginia’s

1919 "Kew Gardens" — and two copies are here, one showing

sister Vanessa Bell’s handpainted abstract cover, another with Bell’s

whimsical woodcut flowers decorating a page of text — convinced

the Woolfs to take the press commercial.

And almost dead center in the exhibit is another publisher: Sylvia

Beach. The daughter of a Presbyterian minister in Princeton and


of the Shakespeare & Company bookstore in Paris, Beach — the first

publisher of James Joyce’s "Ulysses" — is represented

in a 1923 oil portrait by Paul Emile Becat. Her head is turned


but her gaze is startlingly direct, challenging you to engage or amuse

her. (Beach, who is buried in Princeton Cemetery, left her papers

to the university. Copies of her editions of "Ulysses" and

correspondence are on display on Firestone’s first floor.)

Superb examples of Arts and Crafts-era find bindings by Sarah Prideaux

and Sarah Wyman Whitman are on display. Many other 20th-century women

luminaries — in printing content, illustration, and typography

— are here as well. American Wanda Gag (1893-1946) forged a career

in printmaking and in children’s books, winning a Newbery Honor Award

in 1929 for her delightful "Millions of Cats."

Margaret Bourke-White’s 1941 photograph of the Kansas publishers of

the "Pretty Prairie Times" shows an older woman in a hat and

a man in an apron reviewing copy. They share the black and white shot

with their hulking linotype machine, an innovation that made


typesetting possible.

And here is a copy of the 1939 "Bauer Almanac" from the Bauer

Type Foundry in New York, set partly in Elizabeth type designed by

Elizabeth Friedlander. When Friedlander first designed the type in

her native Germany, her last name was deemed too "Jewish"

to successfully market the new face, which bears her first name


She escaped Nazi Germany and lived much of the rest of her life in

England, becoming a successful advertising designer.

There are several examples of work from typesetter and typographer

Bertha Goudy (1869-1935), wife of this country’s most prolific type

designer, Frederic Goudy, and famous in her own right for, among other

things, founding "The Distaff Side," a gathering of New York

women in the printing trade.

In San Francisco, Jane Bissell Grabhorn borrowed that name for some

of her own deliciously witty work. She married into — and


to, with her own imprints — California’s preeminent press in the

1930s and 40s: Grabhorn Press, run by brother Robert (Jane’s husband)

and Edwin Grabhorn. Jane’s "Bookmaking on the Distaff Side"

was a serious history of women’s contributions to the printing arts

in calligraphy, papermaking, and typesetting.

It was also a pointed satire on "typography’s


poking fun at the obsessive (and still largely male-dominated) world

of fine printing. "Don’t be tied down by dunces and fools,"

runs one of the book’s displayed rhymes, "To quads ems picas and

man made rules./In this kind of trif-eling, let the male wallow/For

women the freedom of wind and of swallow."

Women printers from California contributed the exhibit’s most


work: Five beautifully illustrated broadsides of poems from


women poets, from the "Women Writing Poetry in America" series

published in 1982 by The Center for Research on Women at Stanford


And there is one other famous poster, this one composed and printed

by the formidable printing historian and typographer, Beatrice Warde

— who, like Goudy and Grabhorn, almost married a printing man.

An American who lived in London, Warde lionized her chosen place of

employment as the "crossroads of civilization, refuge of all the

arts" and "armour of fearless truth against whispering


"Friend you stand on sacred ground," proclaims Warde’s elegant

1932 broadside. "This is a printing office."

— Phyllis Maguire

Unseen Hands: Women Printers, Binders, and Book Designers,

Milberg Gallery, Firestone Library, Princeton University,


Curated by Rebecca Warren Davidson, show runs to Sunday, April 13.

Open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday

noon to 5 p.m. Admission is free.

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