Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture

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From the OI Archives: Our Copper and Wood Printing Blocks, part IV

· April 18th, 2018 · No Comments

This is the fourth and final in a series of posts by Laurel Daen on the history of the copper and wood printing block process used to produce the William and Mary Quarterly until the mid-twentieth century. Laurel wrote the pieces in preparation for the OI’s 75th anniversary while she was Lapidus Initiative Communications Coordinator in 2016.

by Laurel Daen

A Look at Printing Illustrations in the WMQ in the Mid-Twentieth Century

Part IV

Once Royal Engraving Company technicians had etched the copper plates with negatives of the images to be printed in the WMQ, they would have prepared the plates for printing. The Royal Engraving Company never actually printed the final illustrations for the WMQ. Instead, workers would have trimmed the plates to their desired size, nailed them to wooden backs, and then sent the blocks to the William A. Byrd Press, also in Richmond, VA, for printing and binding.

The William Byrd Press Advertisement. Richmond City Directory. 1919. Page 107. Ancestry.com

Byrd Press was the WMQ’s press of choice from 1942 to 1992. Founded in 1913, it was a major publisher of scholarly books and journals—think everything from The Journal of Modern History to the Journal of American Studies—before it was purchased and rebranded in the 1980s and 1990s. During the mid-20th century, Byrd Press printed the WMQ using mechanized letterpress machines. Text was printed on linotype presses, in which operators entered letters on a 90-character keyboard and the apparatus assembled and cast the letter forms into a single metal printing plate. Technicians also used monotype—in which they drew or painted directly on copper plates—for decorative finishes.

For illustrations, however, Byrd Press workers used letterpress machines expressly designed to handle engravings. When ink was rolled over the copper-and-wood blocks received from the Royal Engraving Company, these presses exerted slightly more pressure than those designed for text, causing ink to pool in the tiny wells hollowed out by the acid during photoengraving. As these wells were larger in areas of shadow and smaller in areas of high light, the ink was distributed unevenly, producing the greyscale of the resulting illustrations. The negative images on the blocks also appeared in their positive forms on the paper.

http://britishletterpress.co.uk/presses/cylinder-and-proofing-presses/heidelberg-cylinder-presses/

Heidelberg Cylinder Press brochure, 1958. Available at “Heidelberg Cylinder Presses,” British Letterpress: A UK View of Letterpress Printing, April 25, 2009.

After printing, Byrd Press technicians would have dried the printed pages, inserted the images into their right location in the issue, and then bound the whole. Finally, they would have returned the volumes to the WMQ office in Williamsburg to be distributed to readers.

Here are some of our favorite copper-and-wood blocks from the collection.

Six Medallions

Plate 1 and Page 8 of Article D. Caption: Copper Plate and Illustration of “Six Medallions.” In Douglass Adair, “The Stamp Act in Contemporary English Cartoons,” WMQ 10, 4 (Oct 1953).

The Triumph of America

Plate 2 and Page 12 of Article D. Caption: Copper Plate and Illustration of “The Triumph of America.” In Douglass Adair, “The Stamp Act in Contemporary English Cartoons,” WMQ 10, 4 (Oct 1953).

Plate 3 and Page 5 of Article D. Caption: Copper Plate and Illustration of “The Last Shift.” In Douglass Adair, “The Stamp Act in Contemporary English Cartoons,” WMQ 10, 4 (Oct 1953).

The Last Shift

The Ballance

Plate 7 and Page 11 of Article D. Caption: Copper Plate and Illustration of “The Ballance, or the American’s Triumphant.” In Douglass Adair, “The Stamp Act in Contemporary English Cartoons,” WMQ 10, 4 (Oct 1953).

Plate 5 and Page 14 of Article E. Caption: Copper Plate and Illustration of “Chaaskahae.” In Dorothy Wollon and Margaret Kinard, “Sir Augustus J. Foster and ‘The Wild Natives of the Woods,’ 1805-1807,” WMQ 9, 2 (Apr. 1952).

Chaaskahae

Plate 14 and Page 25 of Article E. Caption: Copper Plate and Illustration of “Shahaka, The ‘Big White.’” In Dorothy Wollon and Margaret Kinard, “Sir Augustus J. Foster and ‘The Wild Natives of the Woods,’ 1805-1807,” WMQ 9, 2 (Apr. 1952).

Shahaka, The “Big White”

Plate 11 and Page 12 of Article E. Caption: Copper Plate and Illustration of “Sir Augustus J. Foster.” In Dorothy Wollon and Margaret Kinard, “Sir Augustus J. Foster and ‘The Wild Natives of the Woods,’ 1805-1807,” WMQ 9, 2 (Apr. 1952).

Sir Augustus J. Foster

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