A Dictionary of the Art of Printing
by William Savage

This book was written by a printer, for printers, to address all those pesky “How am I supposed to deal with this?” questions. I picture it getting ever more ink-smeared and dogeared as the years went by, with printers running around shouting “Where’s the ### Dictionary? We’ve got Armenian on this page!”

The Dictionary was written near the end of the author’s life (1770–1843). I don’t know how long he spent on it, but no one came along later to produce updated editions, so it must be considered definitive as it stands. If you keep your eyes open, you will find heaps of useful and informative details tucked away in articles with unpromising titles like Brace or Punctuation (or, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Comma, Plus a Whole Lot More) or even Capitals. Want to know about galley slaves? See Ancient Customs.

Savage didn’t only draw on his own professional experience. Dozens of passages are credited to “Astle” (The Origin and Progress of Writing, 1784) or “Murray”. But hundreds are attributed simply to “M.” That’s Joseph Moxon (1627–1691), whose 1683 Mechanick Exercises, or, the Doctrine of Handy-Works, Applied to the Art of Printing was the earliest work on printing—not just in English but in any language.

Along with the how-tos, we get the full text of all laws that affected English printers in 1841. Some are unexpectedly interesting, others . . . not so much. If nothing else, the laws will give you a much better appreciation of

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Enjoy it while you can.

The name “Dictionary” means that everything is in alphabetical order. So there’s no Index and no Table of Contents—but plenty of cross-references (“see Donations”) to help you find what you’re looking for.

Specialized Content

Much of the book contains the kinds of information you might expect: definitions of technical terminology; drawings of the parts of a press; detailed notes on punctuation, orthography and so on. But there are also long entries covering—

Scripts and Languages

The Dictionary has articles on all scripts that were available in English print shops in 1841, along with the languages that used them.

Each article includes a table of the characters in that script. This doesn’t only mean non-European languages such as Arabic; it also means alternate letterforms such as blackletter, cursive and Fraktur. For scripts that have a standardized Unicode form, tables will show the actual letters. There will also be an image of the table as printed.

In the ebook, bracketed forms like [A] or [A´] or [A A]—always using the letter A—mean that some individual word or letter couldn’t be displayed as printed. There will be a page image nearby to show what you’re missing. If, on the other hand, your screen shows a blank space or a generic symbol such as an empty box, that means the letter does exist somewhere—just not in your device.

All language names are as the author spelled them. East and Southeast Asian scripts, including the Japanese syllabaries, are conspicuous by their absence.


I think the purpose of all these lists was to help printers decipher their hand-written orginals without having to appeal to the author on every point. In detail:


Most of these are abbreviations of the names of standard works or authors.


Here I’ve also listed scribal ligatures, as well as abbreviations associated with specific texts such as the Domesday Book. For fallbacks such as [A] and page images, see “Scripts”, above.

Technical or Scientific Terms

Terms used in some specialized fields of study—other than printing, of course.


To quote the Dictionary, under Acts of Parliament:

There are various Acts of Parliament which affect printers, and inflict penalties for the neglect or violation of their provisions. Many printers frequently subject themselves to penalties, which are in many instances very heavy, through ignorance of those laws. To enable them to avoid these penalties, and also to show the legal restrictions on the business, I have taken great pains to examine the whole of the Statutes at Large, and to extract from them all such clauses as are in force, that affect the trade.

This isn’t only of interest to historians of printing; social historians will also find much to ponder. For example, at the time of the Dictionary it was flat-out illegal to advertise a reward or to post “No Questions Asked” when trying to recover missing property. Apparently punishing wrongdoers was considered the single most important thing—even if it meant that some people never got their belongings back.

Case Diagrams

This is where the words “upper case” and “lower case” came from: the printer’s cases of letters, laid out in a standard way. Some are in the main “Case” article, pgs. 97-102; the rest are scattered through the book. Since early cases included letter­forms that are no longer used, like the assorted ſ (long s) combi­nations, the case diagrams will generally be a mixture of text and images.

Imposition Charts

These charts show how the printer lays out the pages for the different sizes of book, from folio on up, so that they will be in the right order when the paper is folded and cut. The charts almost always come in pairs, for the front and back of each sheet. Where there’s only one, each sheet of paper yields two identical sets of pages.

The full article begins on pg. 327; the charts cover pgs. 335-400, with a detailed index on pgs. 401-410.

Pro tip: If you find yourself irresistibly drawn toward experimental cutting and folding, remember that everything is printed backward. If you can’t deal with the mirror-image business, try the page layouts for Hebrew; they go in the other direction. A good general rule is: after each fold, rotate the paper 90° clockwise, so the most recent fold is at the top. Fold the left half over the right. Reverse for Hebrew.


Some things that wouldn’t fit anywhere else:

Monster Tables

The Dictionary as printed included three vast tables, ranging from 20 to over 50 pages long:

In the etext, these tables are not shown in full. They are stupefyingly long and boring, the infor­mation they contain can be derived in a few seconds with a pocket calculator—and the page scans are available online for people who really, really want to see them. Where something has been left out, tables will contain rows of dots like this:


At the end of each table I will show what values to enter into your calculator to get the desired result.

About the Transcription

This etext is based on scans at the Internet Archive, made from a copy at Cornell University. As far as I know, there was only one edition of the book. Proofreading, preliminary formatting and about half the non-Roman scripts are the work of Distributed Proofreaders.

Predictably, there are not many typographical errors. The few I did find are marked with mouse-hover popups, and are listed again at the end of each article. The word “invisible” means that there is an appro­priately sized blank space, but the letter or punctu­ation mark itself is missing. For [A] notations, see Scripts and Languages.

Finally: Remember in the 90s when web pages would always say “This page best viewed with” followed by a very, very short list of browsers? The Printing Dictionary can, of course, be read on any device. But if you have access to Safari, use it. It tends to be the font-friendliest browser—and at time of ebook prepa­ration (May 2017) it is the only browser that will match the layout of articles in the printed book.




Printed by A. Spottiswoode,












Books of this class, themselves series of explanations, require fewer prefatory remarks than those of any other; yet I cannot allow the present work to go before the public without availing myself of this privilege of authors. It affords me an opportunity of acknowledging, which I do most gratefully, the kind and valuable assistance I have received during my protracted labours, and of saying a few words on the History of Printing, the limits of the book, the style of writing adopted, and on the introduction of subjects that at a first glance may appear to have but little or no connexion with the art.

I am indebted to Mr. Fehon, of Mr. Bentley’s establishment, Bangor House, Shoe Lane, for the valuable article on Records, who is, perhaps, more competent than any other printer in the kingdom for such an undertaking; and also for his judicious opinions during the progress of the work. Mr. Murray kindly prepared the specimens of electrotype by his improved method, for which method he received a premium from the Society of Arts. To Mr. Knight I am obliged for permission to copy the list of botanical terms from his Encyclopædia. From the letter founderies of Mr. Caslon, of Messrs. Figgins, and of Messrs. Thorowgood and Besley, I have obtained the various alphabets, &c., and am happy to acknowledge the courteous manner in which these and other kindnesses were granted. To other friends who feel an interest in the work, and have rendered me their services, I beg to tender my sincere thanks. The books quoted are each mentioned with every quotation, therefore there will be no necessity to recapitulate them here; I may, however, state, that they are the works of standard authors, as it has been my endeavour to refer to the opinions of men whose talents and learning are generally acknowledged, rather than to opinions perhaps more pertinent in works but little known.

The origin of the art is involved in obscurity, there being no clue by which it can be traced, yet it is doubtless of very early date: some authors maintain that printing was practised during the building of Babylon. It is not my intention, however, to enter upon this inquiry here, as it is probable, if my health continue, that I shall embody the facts and information I have been so long collecting on this subject in another work. The dates given of the introduction of the practice into Europe by previous writers are unquestionably erroneous, as we have conclusive evidence of its being followed as a profession for nearly a century before the earliest date they give. There has, in reality, hitherto been but little said on the History or Practice of Printing, the numerous vi books on the subject being chiefly copies from one or two of the earliest writers. The object in the present undertaking was that of making a purely practical work: one that might meet every exigence of the printer whilst in the exercise of his art, and one that would serve as a book of reference to the author, the librarian, and, in fact, to every one inter­ested in books or their production.

It will be observed that Moxon’s book has been frequently referred to, and in many instances quoted from. This I was induced to do in consequence of the quantity of useful matter it contains, and more especially in order to point out and contrast the then method of printing with the present. (Where the letter M is used it refers to this author.) The inter­mediate stages, where improvements or alterations have occurred, are also noticed; so that the practical history of the art is complete from the year 1683, when Moxon published, to the present time.

The Statutes at Large I have carefully gone through from their commencement; all the acts of parliament that in any way refer to printing, and unrepealed, I have introduced: so that the Printer has here all the Statute Law in existence for his guidance in conducting his business.

The List of Abbreviations will be found extensive, and, I trust, valuable, as until now there has been no printed list of many of them. The inter­pretations have been obtained by comparing the writings of contemporary authors, and by consulting those of my friends who have made the early writers their study.

All the alphabets are taken from the best grammars in each language, in preference to the more easy, but less correct method, of copying the letters from any indifferent book printed in the characters of the respective languages. I have confined myself to those languages of which the characters are in the British founderies.

Whether my views are right or wrong respecting the orthography, punctuation, and the capital letters of the Bible, rests with the public to determine. I cannot consent to give an opinion in favour of the changes that fashion, prejudice, or even the rules of grammar have introduced, which are now adopted in general writing, until we have another authorized version of the Bible, but think the more literally we copy the present the better, otherwise the discrepancies will soon be notorious.

The article on Imposing is of considerable length; yet I could not, in justice to the work, curtail it: the tables might even have been still more numerous, and yet serviceable, had the limits of the book permitted; as it is, they are much more extensive than any tables hitherto published. Men from the country having been but little used to bookwork, find themselves at a loss on entering a town-house in this part of their business.

In printing topographical works, copies of early acts of parliament, state papers of the middle ages, or books published soon after the introduction of printing, when there were no general rules for either writing or spelling, the list of characters and abbreviations under the head of vii Records will be found invaluable. My kind friend Mr. Fehon has spent many years of his life in investigating this subject, and has here condensed most of what will be valuable to the Printer.

Electrotype, although quite in its infancy, promises to be of great utility in the arts, and not the least so in that of printing. I have therefore thought it right to give some account of it, together with specimens, amongst which will be found an electrotype copy of a page of types: it is imperfect, but I believe it is the first that has been published.

No detailed account of the process of producing fine presswork has before appeared. This circumstance I cannot otherwise explain than by supposing it to arise from the jealous feeling that exists in the bosoms of many of those who are masters of the practice. On speaking to them of the value a detailed statement would be, I have been told that there were already a sufficiency of men who knew it, and that there was no necessity to deprive them of their advantages. Having paid particular attention to this department, and having produced works of this character that have been highly applauded, I have given a detailed account of all the minutiæ of so valuable a branch of the business.

Printing from engravings on wood is also a subject that has particularly inter­ested me, the practice of which I have given at length: the result of my experience confirms the opinion that the press is infinitely superior to the machine for this description of work.

Having prepared the bulk of the matter prior to going to press, I thought it might be safely stated that the whole would be comprised in fourteen numbers. Yet, on revising, I found that some important articles had not been touched upon, and that others perfectly new (electrotype, &c.) had sprung up during the progress of printing; so that either the book must have been left incomplete (had the first arrangement been adhered to), or three more numbers must be added, and thus every branch that pertained to the practice be embraced. I trust none will regret that the latter plan has been adopted. With regard to the style of writing—I am now an old man, and perhaps may be, in some degree, wedded to the writings as well as the customs of my youth; therefore the quaintness of expression, which my friends have noticed, may possibly be more marked than I am aware of; yet the manner is not wholly unintentional. To some persons simple language may not have the attractions that are presented by the writings of many authors of the present day, whose chief study is elegance of expression; but do we not, by adopting this flowery style, lose in clearness, in strength, in conciseness? Yes, and, I think, even in beauty; and when it is considered that it was the intention to make the book one of practical instruction, and that it was written with the hope that it might be placed in the hands of each printer’s boy on entering the business, I trust this sin of inelegance may be pardoned. No one but the compiler of a dictionary can conceive the unwearied labour that is requisite for its completion. Having possessed greater opportunities than most men for the present undertaking, yet have I been upwards of half a century in collecting the materials; not, perhaps, having entertained the idea of publishing viii during the whole of this period, still never neglecting to amass every species of information that might be made available. On going over such an extent of ground much has been culled that would either never have been known to me, or, if known, would have been forgotten, had the book been more hastily got up; and all those subjects, a knowledge of which, at first, may appear irrelevant or useless, will in practice be found highly necessary, there having been no dictionary or book of reference kept in the printing offices to which the workmen could apply. Should the work prove less useful than I could wish it, the fault is in myself, and not in the subject; but if on its perusal the young be instructed, the knowledge of the more mature workman be refreshed and confirmed, and the general reader find its utility as a book of reference, then have I nothing to regret, but much to be grateful for. Lord Bacon says, “Every man is a debtor to his profession, from the which, as men do of course seek to receive countenance and profit, so ought they of duty to endeavour themselves by way of amends to be a help thereunto.”