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High Quality Mass Printing of Nineteenth Century
Engravings and Woodcuts

Cover of Harper's 1878 Catalog
Cover of Harper's 1878 Catalog

The following text and illustrations are excerpted from an article entitled “A Visitors’ Guide to Harper & Brothers’ Establishment”as it appeared in the 1878 edition of that famous New York publishing house’s 314-page catalogue, “Harper & Brothers’ Descriptive List of their Publications with Trade List Prices.” (Period spelling has been retained.) -BCC

Harper's Franklin Square
Harper's Franklin Square

Illustration, by means of engravings, forms no inconsiderable part of the manufacture of a book. The rooms of the artists and engravers are in the Pearl Street building, but access to these is not accorded to visitors. This is not owing to any churlishness, or because there is any secret in the processes; but because a concourse of visitors would seriously interfere with the work done there. A very few sentences will describe all that a visitor would see. The general methods of producing pictures for books are lithography, copper-plate engraving, wood-engraving, and the modern process-work.

Lithography, or drawing upon stone, is based upon the principle that oil and water will not adhere to each other. With a pencil composed mainly of lamp-black mixed with oil and wax, the artist makes a drawing upon a kind of close-grained stone precisely as though he were making it upon paper. To print from this drawing, the stone is rubbed over with a moistened sponge. The water will wet the stone itself, but will not wet the oily lines of the drawing. Then a roller, covered with all oily ink, is passed over the whole. The ink adheres to the drawing, but not to that part of the wet stone not covered by the lines. A sheet of paper is laid on the drawing, and the impression is given by passing the stone under a heavy roller. This alternate wetting, inking, and rolling is repeated for every sheet. Lithography is now rarely used in books, except for producing pictures in several colors. Each color requires a separate stone and a separate printing. The whole process is slow, and therefore costly.

In copper-plate engraving the lines and dots which make up the picture are cut into the surface of a piece of copper. To print from this, the whole plate is inked over. The ink is then carefully wiped off from the surface of the plate, leaving only that in the lines or dots. The sheet is then laid upon the plate, which is passed under a roller having a heavy pressure, thus forcing the paper down into the lines' and taking up the ink from them. The process is slow; and, moreover, the rubbing involved in wiping the plate rapidly wears it out, so that only a comparatively few impressions can be taken. Engraving upon steel differs from engraving upon copper only in the material used. The engraving is made upon a plate of softened steel, which is then hardened. A steel plate will give many more impressions than one of copper.


Wood-engraving is the precise opposite of copperplate engraving. Upon a block of wood cut endwise, or across the grain, the draughtsman or artist makes a drawing as he would upon paper, except that everything is reversed, as if reflected in a mirror. The engraver cuts away the surface of the wood, except the portions covered by the lines of the drawing, leaving them standing in relief, like the face of a type.

In order to appreciate the relative difficulties of the two modes of engraving, let any one take a black pencil, and upon a piece of white paper endeavor to make an exact copy, line for line and stroke for stroke, of one of the pictures in this sheet. If he succeeds, he will have done what the copper-plate engraver would do. Then, with a black slate and a finely pointed white pencil, let him try to make another exact copy of the same picture, making that white which is white in the picture, and leaving that black which is black in the picture. If he succeeds in making a perfect facsimile, he will have done just what the woodengraver has done.

The block of wood should be "type-high;" that is, the thickness be just the length of a type. If it is the least higher, the back must be planed down. If it is a trifle lower, the defect is remedied by pasting one or more thicknesses of paper upon the back. In fact, a wood engraving is really a large type, and is printed from, stereotyped from, or electrotyped from in precisely the same manner. Very frequently wood-cuts and type form parts of the same page, and are printed at the same impression. Boxwood is the only kind of wood which has sufficient closeness and toughness of grain to be used for fine engravings.

The illustrations in Harper's Magazine, Weekly, and Bazaar are principally wood-cuts but a few are executed by the photographic relief process, which is suited only to certain kinds of drawings. Wood-cuts are now used almost exclusively in books and periodicals, since, owing to the cost of printing the plates, a work containing many copper-plate or lithographic illustrations must be sold at a very high price; whereas, apart from the very considerable original expense of the engravings themselves, it costs very little more to produce a work with wood-cuts than without them. If the number of copies sold is very large, this considerable aggregate cost, when distributed among the whole, becomes very small for each copy, while on the other hand, the printing of each separate copper-plate impression is a separate item of cost being the same for each individual copy, no matter how numerous they may be.

Harper's Printing Plant
Harper's Printing Plant

In stereotyping, one or more pages of type and/or woodcut engravings are locked up in a small chase, and from these a mould is taken in plaster of Paris. Type-metal — a composition mainly of lead and antimony — is poured into this mould, forming a cast of the face of the type. These casts or "plates" are planed down upon the back to a regular thickness, and from them the printing is made precisely as from the types themselves. But for more than twenty years stereotyping has, in this establishment, been entirely superseded by the far better process of electrotyping.

Electrotyping is based upon the principle that the galvanic battery will decompose compound bodies, and make an entirely new disposition of their component elements. A very common compound is sulphate of copper, familiar, under the name of "blue vitriol," as a dyeing material. If a solution of this be made in water, there are present in combination copper, sulphur, hydrogen, and oxygen. The galvanic current decomposes this disposing of the various elements in its own way, the essential point for our present purpose being that the liberated particles of copper attach themselves in a pure metallic form to the positive pole of the battery, or to any metallic substance connected with it.

Bearing these facts in mind, let us follow a page of type and woodcut engravings from the composing-room into the electrotype-room. Here it is moulded. The mould is of beeswax, poured in a melted state into a shallow brass pan, called a "case." Before it is entirely cool, it receives a coating of black-lead, to give it a metallic surface. The page, properly adjusted in a chase, is then placed in the moulding-press, and forced, by a powerful pressure, into the mould, producing a perfect facsimile in wax. On receiving another coating of black-lead, the mould is placed in a tank filled with a solution of sulphate of copper, into which enter the poles of a galvanic or electric battery, the mould being connected with the positive pole, the negative pole being attached to a plate of copper. In an instant a thin film of copper appears on the "black-leaded" surface of the mould. This increases momently in thickness, until within a time, which can be regulated by the operator — say from an hour upward — it has acquired the requisite thickness — about that of a sheet of stout paper.

Battery Room
Battery Room

The upper surface of this "shell," when taken from the mould, is a perfect facsimile of the face of the original page, the minutest line of an engraving being reproduced with absolute d precision. The shell looks as though one had with punches stamped every line and letter into a thin sheet of copper. This thin shell would be crushed flat by the immense pressure of the printing-press. It must be "backed up" with type-metal. This metal will not, even when melted, adhere firmly to a sheet of copper but it will adhere to tin, and melted tin will adhere to copper. A sheet of tin foil is laid upon the back of the copper shell, which is secured in a shallow iron tray, and heated to a o proper temperature. Melted type-metal is then poured over the plate, filling up every depression, and forming a solid backing, firmly soldered to the shell. The plates are shaved down to the proper size and are ready for the press.

Electroplating a has many advantages over stereotyping, especially where fine engravings are to be reproduced. The stereotype plaster mould is not perfectly accurate, and the metal expands and contracts a little in heating and cooling. The difference in a page of mere type is hardly perceptible; but in an engraving where each minute line should be faithfully reproduced, it becomes very evident, the finer lines being heavier than in the original, while in an electrotype plate they are exact facsimiles. Besides, the type-metal being soft, and the fine lines very- shallow, the stereotype plate of an engraving shows evident signs of wear after a few hundred impressions have been taken. The surface of the electrotype plate, being of hard copper, is much more durable. Indeed in Harper’s Magazine no one can perceive that the 100,000th copy is not as perfect as the first.

Hand Press
Hand Press

The Adams presses used by Harper & Brothers have essentially the same parts as early hand operated presses, although differently arranged. The bed rises up against the platen, instead of the platen coming down upon the bed. The tympan is stationary under the platen, which is fixed in its place. The frisket lies horizontally and is moved forward to receive the sheet, and backward to bring it over the form, resting upon the bed, which has only the upward and downward motion. The "feeder" (usually a young boy or girl) lays the sheet to be printed upon an inclined plane, the edge slightly projecting. It is caught by a set of iron fingers, which pull it down upon the frisket, by which it is carried to the form. The impression is given by a kneejoint from below.

The sheet is then lifted, or rather blown by a bellows, upon a series of " endless tapes," from which it is taken by the "fly," a light frame turning upon an axle, which whirls the sheets over, and lays them in a regular pile at the end of the press opposite the one where they received the impression. Meanwhile the press has been "distributing" the ink. The distributing apparatus is quite complicated; the result of the operations being that the ink is spread evenly, and in just the desired quantity over a large distributing roller, from which it is taken up by the inking-rollers, which transfer it to the type-plates. Each Adams press will print about 6000 sheets a day.

Adams Press
Adams Press

To print fine engravings properly requires a process called "making ready." The beauty of a sheet of type-matter depends upon its being a uniform color throughout. If the ink has been properly distributed, an equal pressure on every part will produce a uniform color. But to give the proper effect to an engraving some parts must be blacker than others; that is, they must be made to take up more ink, and, in order that they may do this, the pressure on these parts must be greater than on the others. An impression is taken on a sheet of thick paper or card-board. The engravings will appear poor and indistinct; the parts which should be light are too dark; those which should be dark are too light. The sheet is pasted upon the tympan; the operator slightly scrapes away the places which should be lightened, and pastes on thin bits of paper where the impression is to be darkened, sometimes putting on several thicknesses, often not larger than one's finger-nail.

As the tympan, in printing, comes between the form and the platen, the force of the impression is increased where the overlays have been put, and diminished where there has been any cutting away. A proof impression is taken from time to time, so that the operator can judge of the effect, and see where more or less pressure is wanting. To make ready a sheet with many engravings may require the labor of two men for several days. For the cylinder presses, cutting-out; for platen presses, overlaying is mainly used.

Harper's Logo
Harper's Logo

Courtesy Bruce C. Cooper Collection.

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