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History of Lettering Thoughts on lettering

‘Metalfounders who cast the slugs for Baskerville’s elegant type died paralysed with lead poisoning…’

So writes Robert Hughes [The Fatal Shore, 1988, Pan Books, p.21].* This got me thinking about the foundry process since, without the metal there is no type, and without type nothing else is possible. I turned to my books and scanned those lovely, ‘sanitised’ early prints of printing workshops.

printing-office
Engraving by Abraham von Werdt (flourished 1640-80), taken from Printing To-day by John C Tarr. OUP, 1945, p.23.

They look so orderly, so clean, so hygienic. Then I turn again to Joseph Moxon and his Mechanick Exercises… [Dover Publications, NY, 1978, edited by Davis, H & Carter, H] which has sections Of setting up the Furnace and  Of making Metal [pp162-167].

Moxon describes in elaborate detail how the foundry is made and the type of ingredients used: ‘…for every three Pound of Iron, about five and twenty pounds of Lead‘. Moxon concludes: ‘Now (according to Custom) is Half a Pint of Sack mingled with Sallad Oil, provided for each Workman to Drink; intended for an Antidote against the Poisonous Fumes of the Antimony, and to restore the Spirits that so Violent a Fire and Hard Labour have exhausted’. There you are.

la-grant-danse-macabre
La grant danse macabre dated 1499 and printed in Lyon, purporting to be the earliest image of a printing workshop

It was an ugly job, and may well explain why those cadavers are inserted in the 1499 image of a printers office.

  • But there is no source given by Hughes to this statement. Does anyone know where he may have gleaned this information?
pouring-the-mould
‘A caster at the furnace using a hand mould’. From Printing and the Mind of Man, 1963, being a catalogue of the Exhibition at the BM and Earls Court. This may be Sidney Squires of the OUP, who is shown in Moxon, p.406.
printing-mind-of-man-back-cover
From back cover of the Printing and the Mind of Man catalogue, 1963.