Hailey Coral


From watermarks to Gutenberg

Once letterforms and language existed, it was easy for people to communicate: to write things down, to understand each other not only through voice, but also through writings in history. Ink and handwriting made this reproduction of language beautiful, but not exactly easy- especially when it came to mass production. Once writing was established in Europe, libraries were able to start forming collections (if you consider 122 books at most a library). A book as brief as two hundred pages could take up to 5 months of labor by a scribe, and was worth as much as a Vineyard because of its effort and the paper making. If you think of it this way, you could either buy a farm for your family to live on or a single short book. Once papermaking made its way to Europe from Asia, the expensive sheepskin paper process was eliminated, and the Chinese flax and hemp paper replaced it. The first printing process known to us is the watermark. Though it was not used for writing at first, and mostly used for trademarks, it was a translucent reproduction that began the “reprinting” idea. After watermarks, came the early European block printing, which was originally used for mostly, playing cards. Some text, but mostly just pictures were used in these instances. The earliest block prints that were used for communication purposes were actually religious prints of saints. Image and lettering was engraved in the wood and then made into block books. Almost like comic strips, these books had little writing, and were image based. Nevertheless, they told short religious stories, which communicated strong messages. After the spread of paper and wood blocking invention took over Europe, the demand for books continued to grow. Mechanized production of writings through “moveable type” was desired throughout. After many attempts by others, Johann Gutenberg, an apprenticed goldsmith, developed a way of printing. Gutenberg formed a partnership with two others and together they began to create a letterpress system involving movable metal pieces. After many years, Gutenberg finally was able to bring together enough production pieces to create the first typographic printed book: the Forty-Two-Line bible. Though block printing was the last step in printing we know of before the mechanical letterpress, one would assume, it developed from the wood. However, wood was too fragile and did not play a part in the letterpress casting. Instead, a system similar to presses used for making wine, cheese, and paper was crafted. The type that went into this press was made of carefully molded and aligned lead pieces that were the exact same height. Gutenberg would set as many as fifty thousand separate parts of type at a time, and then use a thin tacky ink to daub onto the sets.

Just before Gutenberg finished his forty-two-line bible, he was forced to leave his shop because of the debt he owed in materials. Though all of this would have been repaid once his bible was created, he was out of time. The person to whom he owed money (Fust) and a man by the name of Peter Schoeffer took over his business, produced the bible, and also began to create colored manuscript pages, which transferred two colors. They became a world-renown production firm that continued in printing, and eventually publishing, for a hundred years. Eventually, Gutenberg was given financial support and was able to open a printing shop in which he made another shorter version of his original bible and then, an in-depth dictionary.

The invention of printing changed the world, as we know it. It made reproduction possible and most importantly made communication, history, and written language available to all.


Meggs, Philip B. "The Prolouge to Graphic Design." A History of Graphic Design. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1998. 4+. Print.