Salt Lake Mailing & Printing Blog

The Early Printing Trade

In 1436, Johannes Gutenberg of Germany invented the printing press. After he printed his Gutenberg Bible, the fame of his printing press spread. Before long, printing presses were in use throughout Europe.

In the early printing houses, a “master printer” oversaw the day-to-day operations. Usually, the master printer was also the owner of the printing house and business. He would choose and edit manuscripts for printing, designate the number to be printed, raise the funds to complete the work, and sell the finished product.

Interestingly, some of the printing houses became cultural hubs of their communities. Art and speech were carried forth like never before, with the advent of the printing press. The oldest-known depiction of an old printing house, made in 1499, is called “Dance of Death,” by Matthias Huss of Lyon. The illustration shows a compositor and a pressman both being snatched by skeletons.

The compositor was the employee who set the type for printing. The pressman actually worked the press, a very demanding process, producing printed pages.  Print shop apprentices worked under the master printer and did not even need to be literate.

Apprentices assisted with the press work, wet the sheets of paper for the press, and prepared the ink before printing. These employees were usually teenagers. Journeyman printers were those who had started out as apprentices and, as long as they were now literate and had learned Latin, were free to change employers.

While the printing houses of Gutenberg’s day were the norm for some time, from 1500 through 1700, the industry moved from the old-fashioned master and apprentice setup to commercial publishing. Publishers began buying copyrights from writers and selling the books they had written, which is as it remains today. But the printing house is still recognized as the stepping stone for modern publishing companies.

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