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This article by Phyllis Maguire was prepared for the March 12,
2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All
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
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
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
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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