Monday, January 31, 2011

Had we but world enough, and time, or paper . . . but right now, I'd just settle for a smaller font (observations concerning a practice of the handpress era)

One of the wonderful things about social media is serendipity, and I recently found myself in an intriguing online discussion with fellow book historian and Twitter friend Katherine Harris of San Jose State University and a few other "tweeps." She has been researching English-language Gothic tales in early nineteenth-century annuals (in fact, she's on the editorial board of Studies in Gothic Fiction). At any rate, she noticed that it was apparently the practice to ensure that Gothic tales in these publications ended at the bottom of a page rather than continuing but only partially occupying the next; she wondered whether anyone knew of similar practices.

One of my research interests happens to be German serials: chiefly periodicals in the strict sense—newspapers and journals—but also almanacs, gift books, and similar pocket annuals (Taschenbücher).

I replied that I was not aware of any such practice regarding prose fiction in the gift books (and few if any of mine ran Gothics). I had, however, come across a practice that caught my attention, in some late eighteenth-century periodicals. Namely, when running a longer prose piece toward the end of an issue, the printer would suddenly shift to a smaller font and/or narrower spacing. Sometimes the story was the last piece in an issue, and sometimes it was followed by a briefer piece or pieces, say, poetry.

To the average person born digital and accustomed to electronic word processing, this may seem mysterious, but to a book historian of the early modern era, it's simple (and old hat).  To oversimplify drastically (or for the uninitiated):
  • Paper was made by hand in large sheets
  • The pre-industrial book was composed of gatherings of these sheets, folded in such ways as to produce the various "formats": one fold yielded two leaves ("folio"; 4 pages), two folds yielded four leaves ("quarto"; 8 pages), three folds yielded eight leaves ("octavo"; 16 pages), etc.
  • Type was then accordingly "imposed" for each side of a sheet. Once it was printed, the type was "broken up" and readied for reuse.
above: printing shop; below: vertical view of press and forme with type set for a sheet in quarto
Printers therefore reckoned in these standard units. So did authors and publishers. To overshoot the confines of one of these printed sheets was to invite trouble.  Given that books were composed of sewn gatherings of the folded sheets (signatures), one could not easily add just a page or two. Because paper was expensive (the reverse of today, when materials are cheap and labor is expensive), one likewise could not wastefully add a whole new sheet. Resetting even the offending sheet might not do the trick, and resetting the entire issue was manifestly impossible.

But if one were not prepared to start from scratch, there was evidently a cheap and dirty way to solve the problem: just stop when you notice the problem and cram in all the remaining text as best you can, like excess laundry into a suitcase. Not pretty, but pretty effective. Then hope that no one cares (for the typographically attuned reader of the day certainly would have noticed).

Today, it is easy for us to calculate word count: If we are asked to write 500 or 5000 words, we know how to tell how close we are, and the publisher can easily measure for him- or herself. In the early modern period, experienced authors, publishers, and printers became accustomed to estimating how much a given manuscript would "yield in print," based on the size of the paper and handwriting and the like.  The task was complicated in the case of popular periodicals, which had a standard length (typically, some multiple of 8 or 16 pages, depending on format) and were produced on a deadline, generally with manuscript from many hands. The text was often still in the process of being written as the publisher or editor prepared to go to press. Experienced writers may have changed their minds and written more or less than intended. Inexperienced authors (common in this genre, which attracted many occasional writers) may have miscalculated.There were many variables, and thus any number of reasons that problems could arise.

I believe I first came across this problem in the case of the women's monthly journal, Flora (1793-1803; continued as Vierteljährliche Unterhaltungen [Quarterly Entertainments], 1804-5). Various factors could account for the practice. The publishers were relatively inexperienced.  Johann Friedrich Cotta (1764-1832), then just a beginner, had taken over the venerable but decrepit family firm barely half a decade earlier, and his new partner and editor of the journal, Christian Jacob Zahn, had even less experience, all gained on the job. Publishing a periodical was a complex undertaking at the best of times, but the more so in the era of the French Revolution, when one of their increasingly important contributors lived in France, and the mails were at times slow or disrupted.  The two men were publishers only, and did not own their own presses. Instead, they relied on a number of local printers, which made communication and last-minute changes relatively easy.

cover of first issue
Flora:  Dedicated to Germany's Daughters.  A Monthly, for Male and Female Friends of the Gentle Sex
(Tübingen:  J. G. Cotta, 1793)

Here, some examples of the practice/problem:

February issue: "Der Keller im Schlosse Salurn.  Ein Mährchen" (The Cellar in Castle Salurn. A Tale"). The story begins on p. 155 and ends in mid-page on p. 201.  However, from p. 198 to p. 199, the layout switches from 31 to 42 lines per page, a density that continues in the final piece of the issue, devoted to fashion news.

In the March issue, the story, "Viktorine," runs from pages 257 to almost the bottom of 297. Above, pages printed in the normal manner of the issue, a comfortable and legible 25 lines per page. Below, the switch to the denser 31 lines.

The practice is jarring in more ways than one, and would have been even more apparent to typographically sensitive contemporary readers. As one can see, there was thus no uniformity within or between issues.  There were approximate norms, but they were freely violated when necessary.  And sometimes the results were doubly awkward. The layout of "Viktorine," for example, left space for only the title and first two lines of Schiller's poem, "Die Kindsmörderin" (The Woman Guilty of Infanticide). It was an unauthorized reprint, and one that Schiller himself would hardly have countenanced in this form. When he did come to work for Cotta and edit a periodical of his own a few years later, he had very precise typographical demands, one of which was that poems not be broken up in this manner.

That this general typographical problem cannot be attributed solely to the errors or misfortunes of the novice can be seen from the fact that it persists here in this issue from June, 1796.

"Rettung von Schande, eine wahre Erzählung. Gegenstük zu Verbrechen aus Infamie" (Salvation from Disgrace, a true story.  A Pendant to Crimes on Account of Infamy")

This is a serialized piece. The first installment of the story begins on page 252, and here, between pages 262 and 263, switches (in the now familiar pattern) from 25 to 31 lines per page. In this case, however, it ends on the last page of the issue, with 27 lines of text, the author's initial, notice of continuation, and a horizontal line (thus again, making up a full 31-line page).

This is just a quick and provisional posting, as a means of illustrating these practices.  If and when time permits, I'll fill in some more of the context.

In the case of the layout of the Gothic tales, there seems (Katherine, correct me if I am wrong) to have been a strong literary-aesthetic impulse. In the case of my periodicals, by contrast, the only motivation was pragmatic, but even that tells us a good deal about book production and audience.  Each case, in its way, reveals something about the aesthetics of literature at the beginning of the modern era.