The Making of Regency Books

Wednesday, 30 October 1811, is generally accepted as the official date of publication of Jane Austen’s first novel, Sense and Sensibility. Though it was not the first novel Austen wrote, it was the first one she would see in print. In honor of that momentous bicentennial, for both fans of Jane Austen and the English Regency in general, this October has been designated book month here at The Regency Redingote. During this month will be published articles about how books were made, about the special form in which the novel was published, and the libraries in which Regency books were housed, to culminate in the story of the publishing of Sense and Sensibility itself.

And so we begin, with an outline of the handcraft of Regency bookmaking …

Regency books, just as books had been for all the centuries before, from the time of Gutenberg, were essentially hand-made items. As were all the various components which were used in their making. The author who wrote the book did so by hand, using paper, ink and quill, all of which were hand-made. Anticipating publication, the author would organize her, or his, rough or foul copy, that is, their messy, marked up manuscript, and make a fair copy, that is, they would copy out the entire manuscript in their very best penmanship, with as few marks or mistakes as possible. This clean, legible, fair copy would then be sent along to the publisher for consideration. Some affluent authors could afford to hire someone to transcribe fair copies from their rough manuscripts, but Jane Austen could not. It is known that she transcribed her own fair copy of each of her manuscripts before sending them to her publisher.

The publisher, and/or the editors or readers he hired to help him, would review the manuscripts sent in, by reading through the manuscript, to the end, if it was well-written and engaging, or only to the point at which they decided to reject it. A letter of acceptance or rejection would be hand-written and posted to the author. However, unlike most publishing houses today, a rejection letter did not necessarily mean a book would not go to press. If the author was willing to pay the costs of publication and distribution, many publishers would be willing to publish books they had initially rejected. Once the publisher had decided the book was worthy of publication, or, if the author was willing to pay the costs of publishing their own book, the arduous and tedious process of publication would begin. The publisher might own their own print shop, designing and printing the book themselves. But many larger publishers preferred not to have capital tied up in printing equipment and chose to contract with a printer instead. For publishers who published a lot of books, this was a very convenient system, as, if they chose, they could have more than one book printed at a time, each with a different printing house. Of course, some of the very large printing houses had more than one press, enabling them to accommodate more than one title from a publisher at the same time, or print one title in a very short time, employing all their presses for the purpose.

Before the book was printed, a number of decisions would have to be made, beyond who would actually do the printing. The most costly commodity used for the printing of any book was the paper. Though there were a number of paper mills in operation in England during the Regency, they were not yet fully mechanized. There were a few machines in each paper mill which were operated by water-power, such as the hollanders which pulped the rags, and, less frequently, the screw presses which were used to force the excess water out of newly made sheets. But in the early nineteenth century, most of the work of paper-making was still done by hand. Thus, paper was made only by the sheet, and the larger the sheet, the more it would cost. Another factor in the cost of a sheet of paper was its thickness, calculated in the trade by weight. The lower the weight of a ream of paper during the Regency, the thinner the 480 sheets of paper which made up that Regency-era ream of paper. For most books, publishers would choose the thinnest paper possible to keep costs down. But if the paper was too thin, the ink from the page printed on the reverse side would bleed through, making both pages illegible. And, for some books, it was more cost-effective to choose a larger sheet of paper, as more pages could be printed per sheet, which reduced printing costs. It must also be remembered that paper was still taxed during the Regency, which added still more to the cost of the paper and that of the finished book.

Perhaps the most aesthetic decision regarding the printing of a book was the selection of the typeface to be used. Most books would be printed with a single typeface, though often more than one font of that typeface would be used, for the various letter point sizes of the title page and chapter headings. For a very important book, the printer, or the publisher, might commission a new typeface, but this was very rare. Most printers would consult with the publisher to choose a typeface from among those the printer already owned. A book of sober and highly moral sermons might be set with typeface which would produce thick, heavy letters on the page, in keeping with the gravitas of the subject matter. But a book of light-hearted romantic poetry might be set with a typeface which would produce thinner, elegant letters in order to accentuate the vivacious spirit of the poems. Regardless of the typeface chosen, every letter had been designed and made by hand. The letter shapes were first draw on paper. When the type designer was pleased with the shape of each letter of the alphabet, three-dimensional shapes for each letter, in each font (point size), in reverse, incorporated into the small bar which would hold it in place, would have to be made. From these, molds would be made to cast the necessary numbers of each letter from an alloy of lead, tin and antimony. Hundreds of these letter sorts would have to be made, all by hand, to make enough letters, in each font, to fill a printer’s letter cases. All of the majuscule, or capital, letters in a typeface would be kept in the upper case, while all the minuscule letters would be kept in the lower case. It was from these two cases of type that a type-setter, also known as a compositor, would pull the letters to be used in printing the book.

All typesetting during the Regency was done by hand. The compositor would compose a page of a book to be printed by pulling each letter from its case and placing it side by side with the next to form words, separated by spaces and punctuation marks, line by line, each line separated by a strip of metal called a slug, until he had set all the type for that page. When he had set the entire page, the type-setter would secure it in a frame, known as a forme, which could then be placed on the bed of the printing press. Typically, during the Regency, for most books, anywhere from four to sixteen pages of a book would be printed on one side of a single sheet of paper, with the reverse pages of each of those pages printed on the other side of the sheet on a later pass through the press. The printer would carefully determine the placement of each forme on the bed of the printing press so that it would align with the forme for the page on the reverse side of the paper when the other side of the page was printed.

Once all the formes were secured in the bed of the printing press, they would all have to be inked. But the inks used for writing were of no use on a printing press, they were too thin to leave a good impression of the letters on the paper. The ink used for printing was oil-based, rather than water-based, as were most writing inks. It was blended to a thick, sticky paste, at which point it was the correct consistency to be applied to the formes on the press bed. Printer’s ink in the Regency was made primarily of a combination of linseed oil and lamp-black, though many printers added in other ingredients, usually some type of varnish, which they believed improved the ink’s performance and longevity. Turpentine was used to thin the ink when necessary. Most printers put their apprentices to work making their ink, though there were some who purchased it from independent suppliers. In all cases, the ink was blended by hand, from components which were also made by hand. Printers’ assistants, known as beaters, inked all the formes on the press bed using a pair of ink spreaders, one in each hand, so they could work as quickly as possible. These spreaders consisted of a wooden handle, usually between eight to twelve inches in length, with circular base of about six inches in diameter. To this base was nailed or tacked a leather cover firmly stuffed with wool to the shape of a flattened ball. Most printers, or their assistants or apprentices, made the ink spreaders used in their print shop, purchasing the handles from a local wood-turner, and renewing the leather and wool ball as needed.

A large sheet of paper was placed between two paper or parchment covered frames known as the frisket and tympan. The frisket had openings cut in the same position and the size of the formes in order keep extraneous ink marks off the margins of the paper to be printed. The frames were closed together and lowered onto the surface of the inked type. The press bed was then rolled under the platen, a flat metal plate of the same size as the press bed. The platen was pressed down on the frisket and tympan holding the paper by a hand-operated windlass mechanism which turned a large screw to exert even pressure over the full surface of the platen. When the paper had been in the press long enough to ensure the ink would have had time to adhere to the paper, the printer used the windlass mechanism to reverse the screw, releasing the pressure. The press bed carrying the frames holding the paper were then rolled out from under the platen. The frames were opened, the paper was removed and placed where it could dry, while the formes were re-inked and a new sheet went into the press. This entire process was accomplished by hand during the Regency. Though The Times of London did purchase a steam-powered press in 1814, and printed their first issue with that press in November of that year, the machine was too large and too expensive for printing houses which did not produce such a large volume of work. All the books printed during the Regency would have been printed on hand-operated presses.

Few books were illustrated during the Regency, and those that were typically had only one, on the frontispiece which faced the title page. But some of the more expensive books, usually those with historical or scientific topics, had several illustrations scattered through the text. Novels were very seldom illustrated in the early nineteenth century. By the Regency, most book illustrations were etchings or lithographs, and were usually printed by hand, in black ink. If color was wanted, an artist would be hired to hand color the etchings or lithographs using watercolors. And not all the illustrations would have been colored, or even colored in the same way. A publisher might hire an artist to hand color the illustrations in a few copies of a book he was publishing if it was published by subscription and some of the subscribers were willing to pay the costs of the artist’s work. Some who bought books with illustrations would hire an artist to color just the illustrations in their copy. For that reason, it is entirely possible today to find two identical editions of the same book, one of which might have colored illustrations while the other one does not. Or, both might have the illustrations colored, but using quite different colors for each illustrations. In some cases, the illustrations were printed along with the text, in other cases, they were printed separately and tipped in, that is, they were cut to the size of the page and glued down onto a blank page.

Once the printed paper was completely dry, the blank side of the sheet would be printed when the formes for the pages which were to appear on the reverse side of the pages which were already printed. Again, the printer would have to be very careful to place all the formes for the new pages on the press bed in the correct order and orientation so that they would align with the pages already printed. Once again, the formes would be inked and the paper would go back into the press, with the blank side down. After the second set of pages was printed, the paper would be removed from the press frames and set aside to dry. All the pages of the book would be printed in this way and when the ink on each sheet of paper was completely dry, the sheets were folded down to create the segment of the book which included those consecutive pages. This group of pages, called a gathering or a signature, was stitched together, by hand. It was the number of pages printed on a single sheet of paper which determined the size of the book, such as quarto, which had four pages printed to a side, eight pages to a side for octavo, twelve pages to a side for the duodecimo and sixteen pages to a side resulting in the sextodecimo. In most cases, the more pages of a book printed on a single sheet of paper, the smaller would be the finished book. When all the signatures had been stitched together, they were put in the correct order to make up the book and were then stitched together to make what was known as the book or text block. All of this stitching was done by hand, by those the printer had hired for the purpose, usually on a piecework basis. But those who stitched signatures together and stitched the signatures into text blocks were just as often women as men. There were so many books printed at this time that the printer would hire anyone capable of wielding a needle to do the stitching, and many women were able to support themselves all or in part with the money they made assembling text blocks.

Today, after a book has been printed, every book in that press run will be bound in exactly the same way, with exactly the same cover. Such was not the case during the Regency. A typical early nineteenth-century press run was between five to seven hundred and fifty copies. Many press runs were smaller, if the book was not expected to sell well, or if it had been sold by subscription and the total number of buyers was known before the book was printed. Particularly in those smaller press runs, it was entirely possible that every text block from the run would have received a different binding. Every one of those bindings would have been applied by hand. Because of the high cost of paper and the labor-intensive process of printing, books were very expensive during the Regency, as they had always been. For that reason, those who could afford to buy books would very often have them bound to their specifications after purchase, a practice common from the mid-seventeenth century to the latter part of the nineteenth among wealthy owners of large book collections. Most publishers, or the book-sellers who purchased the books, would have a percentage of the text blocks from any press run bound "in boards" for these customers. The boards used to bind these text blocks were thick pieces of pasteboard covered in plain paper, resulting in a book which looked a bit like our paperback books of today. Books sold "in boards" were less expensive, but not very sturdy or attractive as they were not expected to retain their simple binding for longer than it took their new owner to collect his book and drop it off at his bookbinder. Some collectors were so particular that they did not want the text block bound even in boards. Rather, they would have the text blocks of the books they purchased wrapped in a sturdy cloth, usually linen, for delivery to their bookbinder. Most habitual book buyers would have a bookbinder they patronized regularly, though some of the most wealthy had a bookbinder on their staff who worked exclusively for them. Whether a full-time employee or an independent bookbinder bound the books for these buyers to their specifications, in most cases, these wealthy book owners would want their books bound in fine leathers and decorated with hand-tooled gilt designs. Some wanted all the books in their libraries to match, being bound in the same materials, in the same color, using the same gilt decoration. Others organized their libraries by color, so, depending upon the section of the library in which this new book was to be placed, it would be bound in leather of the color appropriate to that section. Those with a library or book room in both their London town house and their country home might have the books for each library bound with different colors or different patterns of gilt ornamentation. This helped owners who traveled with their books to keep track of where the book should be permanently shelved once it had been read.

However, these wealthy book buyers purchased only a small percentage of any publisher’s stock. Particularly when it came to novels, the largest percentage of the press run would be sold to lending libraries around the country. Most people could not afford to purchase a novel, certainly not when it was first published, at full price. Rather, they would pay their few shillings a year for a lending library subscription. They could then borrow all the latest fashionable novels at a minimal cost, usually less than the cost of the full price of a single new novel. The volumes intended for the lending libraries would be bound in simple but sturdy leather bindings which would stand up to a great deal of wear. The books which were bound for lending libraries would either be stamped with the name of the library on the cover and/or spine at the time the book was bound, or large areas would be left blank on each book so that the lending library which acquired those copies could stamp them when they arrived at the library. Most lending libraries had their own distinctive specifications for the bindings of their books, and publishers would provide these specifications to the bookbinders they hired to bind the books for sale to a given lending library. The remaining text blocks of a press run, which were not intended for sale to wealthy buyers or the lending libraries, would be sold to book-sellers who would then have them bound to appeal to their specific clientele. The more upscale booksellers, who sold to affluent customers who were not book collectors, would usually have their text blocks full bound in calf leather, with some tooled or stamped gilt decoration on the cover and spine. Booksellers with more budget-conscious customers might have their text blocks half-bound, meaning a leather spine and leather corners on boards covered with a decorative paper, often with a moiré or marbled pattern in colors which harmonized with the leather spine and corners.

Regardless of how a book was bound during the Regency, it would have been done by hand. First, the top, bottom and fore-edge of the book, the three sides which would not be secured to the binding, would be trimmed to create a square and even text block. This trimming was also supposed to cut all the folds which were created when the signatures were folded down, but many were missed and the leaves of the book which had not been cut were still joined. Avid readers during the Regency would keep a paper knife, similar to our letter opener, on hand as they read to cut these uncut pages. Paper knives were sometimes used to open letters, but since the envelope had not yet been invented at this time, they were actually sold, and used, primarily for cutting the folded pages one often found in books of the time. Once the text block had been squared up, the mull, a strip of sturdy, even weave linen was cut, about three to four inches wider than the spine of the book and about two or three inches longer. This was glued to the spine of the text block, using a strong animal glue which the bookbinder would most likely have made themselves, though they may have purchased it from a local supplier. While this was left to dry, the boards for the covers and spine would have to be measured, cut and the edges smoothed. The front and back boards of the book cover were then glued to the extensions of the mull, and left to dry under a heavy weight. The leather or other material which would cover the boards would be measured and cut, all of one piece, with a half to three-quarter inch turnover to be glued down on three sides of both the front and back cover, with enough space left between the cover boards for the spine board. The spine board would be glued to the cover material first, the front board would then be glued to the cover material and finally the back board would be glued in place. Once all the bubbles and wrinkles were worked out, the book would be closed and left to dry under a heavy weight or in a vice. When dry, the extending cover material would be mitred at the corners and folded over to the insides of the covers and glued in place. The area of the turnover at the head and foot of the spine would be turned down, in between the mull and the spine board. The spine board is never glued to the spine of the book. The flexible mull which was glued to the text block allows the book to open and close easily, while the unglued spine board protects the mull from damage but does not inhibit the flexibility of the spine. The nearly finished book is once again placed in a vise or under a heavy weight to dry. The last step in the binding of the book is to paste down the end sheets. These are decorative pieces of heavy paper which are cut to the same height as the text block, and the width of the text block and the book cover. The end sheets are fully pasted to the inside of the cover, and about one-quarter to three-eights inch onto the first outside leaf of the text block, which has been deliberately left blank for this purpose. One end sheet is pasted down inside the front cover and another inside the back cover. Once again, the book is placed in a vice or under a heavy weight while the glue dries. Once the cover has been fully secured to the text block, it will be hand-tooled or stamped with the book title as well as decorative designs, usually gilt, on both the cover and the spine. Books bound in fine leathers were usually given a final polish with a light wax to protect the gilt and to give the cover a glossy finish. All of this work was done by hand, and in many cases, by women. There were more female than male bookbinders in the Regency, though many of them did piecework binding for publishers and booksellers, earning only a subsistence income. Most of the bookbinders who worked for the wealthy collectors were male, but there were some collectors who would trust their books to a talented female bookbinder. Those women would have commanded a much higher price for their work, earning a much better income than those who were only able to get piecework.

All books were made by hand throughout the Regency. It was not until the 1820s that some mechanization began to be introduced into the book-making trades, and the process was not fully mechanized until the latter decades of the nineteenth century. Every one of Jane Austen’s novels was not only written by hand, but the book was also type-set, printed and bound by hand. In a sense, any first edition of one of her novels is a work of multiple arts, both that of the author and the many anonymous artists and craftsmen and women who had a hand in the making of the finished book. Today, many of us take books for granted, but they were costly and prized possessions during the years of the Regency. Though there were a lot of books published during that decade, the low rate of literacy and the very high cost of books meant there was significantly less demand for books then than there is now and those people who could afford them valued them very highly. A press run of a thousand copies during the Regency would have been considered enormous, while most press runs today are in the tens or even hundreds of thousands on first printing. So, though it is true that there were books available in the Regency, the attitudes towards them were very different than our attitudes today. Though I think Jane Austen would be very pleased to know how popular her books are in the twenty-first century, I suspect she might find the quality of many machine-made editions of her work rather shoddy when compared with the first editions of her novels which were published in the Regency.

Next week, the special format in which the majority of Regency novels was published, including those of Jane Austen.


About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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16 Responses to The Making of Regency Books

  1. Once again, a wonderfully informative and well researched article.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thank you! We all take books so for granted today, I thought it might be a good idea to remember how much more labor-intensive it was to make a book during the Regency than it is today.

      And, without doubt, one must really admire the fact that Jane Austen turned out six classic, much-beloved novels with only a quill pen, a bottle of ink and a stack of paper. Today, there is software for authors which will help them plot their stories, keep track of the biographies of all their characters and lots of other things. She had none of that, and yet we are still reading her novels two hundred years on. I wonder how many of those written with the aid of “author software” will still be read in another two hundred years.



  2. Charles Bazalgette says:

    Very informative as usual, Kat! I learned typesetting and printing the old way when I was at school so it brought the process back to me. One stage which seems to be missing is that the typesetter would use a small hand-held tray called a ‘stick’ at first. It had a sliding bit at the end and a stop so you could set the line-length. He could set up to a dozen or so lines in the stick. These could then be moved into a larger tray called a galley, where the full page could be made up. It would be tied together with string round the outside to hold all the type together. A proof could then be run off at that stage (a galley proof) to see how the page looked. Then the page would be wedged into the forme for printing.
    One other thing I recall was that there was a box known as a Hell Box. Any broken types found would be thrown in there. It was so named (cringe) because it was ‘where all the bad types go’.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I did not want to go into too much detail on the type-setting, as I thought it would make the article too long, and possibly a bit yawn-worthy. For those who really want the nitty gritty, there are a number of good sites, and books, out there which go into the history of type-setting in much more detail. Wikipedia is a good place to start.

      However, I do appreciate your insights as a former type-setter, for those who are interested in knowing a bit more about the process from someone who actually set type in the traditional way. Did you set type for a flat press for printing on cut sheets, or for one of those newfangled drum types which printed on rolls of paper? 😉 Also, did you ever use the formes to make stereo-types for things which would have to be regularly re-printed?

      It has been ages since I thought about galley proofs! That certainly brings back so many old memories of my college days, editing and correcting proofs for a book when I was a research assistant. They were always a bit of a challenge to work with.

      I always thought the “Hell Box” got its name since all the bad type would be melted down to make new type. Though, I guess, in a sense, all the “bad types” did go to a really hot place!

      Thanks for sharing,


  3. Charles Bazalgette says:

    I appreciate your wish for brevity but I thought that someone might read this and wonder how the type got into the forme. We printed on a platen press and fed single sheets into it. We also used an old-fashioned screw press for proofs and of course for things like art work. I must say I preferred the latter as being more satisfying to use. This was before small offset litho presses became the popular tool for a small shop. For repeat printings of things like forms, you would remove the page from the forme (we only had a few formes available) and store it tied up on a galley I think.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am so jealous!!! You actually got to run a screw press by hand! What fun! Though I suppose it was just work to you at the time. 😉 They have a couple screw presses from the nineteenth century at the main branch of the Boston Public Library which are on display near the research room where I spend the most time, so I walk past them fairly often. I am glad to know there are at least a couple which will stay out of the scrap yard.

      Storing the type-set pages tied up as you described was what a lot of printers did in the nineteenth century. It was at about that time that they also started making stereo-types, by making a mold of the type-set page, then taking a casting of the whole page from the mold to be used in place of the forme for those things that will be regularly reprinted. That would free up the type for other printings and the stereo-type page was usually good for a couple hundred press runs before it wore down so much it could not make a good impression on the paper.

      Thank you so much for sharing your experiences and memories with printing the way it used to be.


  4. Isobel Carr says:

    My minor concentration in graduate school was book arts, and it’s lovely to see it explained so well for laymen. I don’t think a lot of people today really understand the amount of WORK it took to create a book (there’s a reason those books are still around today, while the hardbacks I buy now fall apart all too readily), the number of people required, or how much books cost back then. For example, The Mysteries of Udolpho (4 volumes in boards) was 1 pound 4 shillings (about $127) in 1809 (Book list for Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme). Pride and Prejudice was 18s (about $94) in 1810 (from the letters of Jane Austen).

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      One of my friends quit her job as an architectural draftsman and went to a local trade school to learn to be a bookbinder a few years ago. She has had more work than she can handle ever since, so even today, there are still people who care about beautifully bound books. She, like you, and me, is a big fan of the hand-made books of the past. She collects them when she can, both to study them and just to enjoy the quality of craftsmanship.

      Today, I think we are more accepting of shoddy books because, since they are made by machine, they are so cheap it is less pain in the wallet if a book falls apart. Our Regency ancestors would not have been so forgiving. And most of the better booksellers of that time would have been careful to sell good quality books so they could keep their customers, since there were so many fewer people buying books. It would have been bad business to offend regular customers.

      Thank you for providing some examples of the comparable prices for books in the Regency. I think that gives people a very clear idea of how much more expensive books really were then. But I do have one little nit to pick. You have given a date of 1810 for the price of Pride and Prejudice, but it was not published until 1813. Was that a typo? If so, just let me know the correct date and I can edit your comment.



  5. Isobel Carr says:

    Hmmm. I got all the prices from Austen’s letters from another researcher who went through them and compiled a list (I have a running spreadsheet I use because as an author, it’s nice to have a general idea of what stuff cost). Something must have been transposed or misommunicated.

  6. Charles Bazalgette says:

    Although we used a screw press, we were more likely to use a roller press for hand work since it was faster. Stereotypes were made using ’tissue’ which was like papier mache. They were also used for printing newspapers before they all became offset litho. In that case the stereotype would be curved so that the resultant casting could be used in a cylinder press. I recall being shown round the Daily Telegraph office as a child – fascinating!

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