Salt Lake Mailing & Printing Blog

The Evolution of the Printing Trade

early printing house

When Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the mid-1400s, he forever changed the world of books, education, religion, and technology. As the printing press began to spread throughout Europe, a specialized printing trade began to develop.  This trade influenced both how books were printed and how they were distributed to readers.

Printing presses were housed in printing houses.  The leader of the printing house (and usually the owner) was the master printer.  The master printer was responsible for overseeing the day-to-day operations of the house, including choosing which manuscripts would be printed, editing the manuscripts, choosing how many copies would be printed, raising the funds to cover the cost of printing the manuscript, and then, finally, actually selling all copies.

The master printer was supported by several employees within the printing house.  One of these employees was the compositor.  The compositor was responsible for setting all the type of the book or document that was to be printed. Once the compositor was finished setting the type, the book was handed over to the pressman.  The pressman was the employee that was responsible for physically working the press and producing the printed pages.

The employees that rounded out the printing houses were the print shop apprentices.  The apprentices reported directly to the master printer and did all the odds and ends, including wetting the sheets before printing and preparing the ink.  Apprentices would start in their teenage years and train to become master printers.

Since the printing houses provided the books that shared art, culture, and speech to the common man, they were often the cultural hubs of the community. Printing houses were so popular that even the items printed on the presses sometimes represented the printing trade.  The earliest depiction is on a sketch called the Dance of Death by Matthias Huss.  The sketch shows a group of skeletons in the process of snatching a pressman and a compositor.

The original printing house stayed fairly unchanged until the 1700s.  At this point, the industry shifted from the traditional master/apprentice relationship to a commercial publishing house.  Publishing houses bought copyrights from authors, printed up their works, and sold them. This shift in the printing and publishing world has created the modern day publishing house that still exists today.

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