What can a battered old copy of Pilgrim’s Progress tell us about how books were printed in the past?

Both big books and small books usually started out being printed on sheets the same size

Both of these early printed books could have been printed on the same size sheets of paper

When you look at an old printed book you’re not really looking at a single book but a series of smaller ‘booklets’ joined together. Books weren’t printed one page at a time but on large sheets of paper subsequently folded into booklets (called gatherings). Therefore pages aren’t the building blocks of early printed books; sheets are. Whether it’s a teeny wee pocket book or a heavy big lectern book, it may well have started out being printed on on the same size sheet of paper.1

A big book, like a lectern Bible, will often contain a series of four page booklets joined together, each booklet formed from two pages printed on either side of a sheet of paper which has then been folded once (books made in this way are described as folio format).2 Smaller books are more likely to be made with booklets containing 8 pages (4 printed on each side, with the sheet folded twice – a quarto format) or sixteen pages (folded 3 times – an octavo format). Generally speaking, the smaller the book format the fewer the number of sheets of paper required to make each copy since smaller format books have more pages printed on each side of each sheet.

Upon deciding to print a book the printer would have to consider the size and shape of the intended book and the length of the print run. Was it to be a small pocket book, something medium sized or a big lectern style book? What should the typeface be and how big the type size? The decisions taken at this point would determine the quantity of paper needed for the project. A useful exercise for the printer at this point was to ‘cast off’. This involved taking the text upon which the book was to be based, counting the number of words and calculating, for the given format and type size chosen, how long the printed book would be and how many sheets of paper would be required for each copy. In theory casting off would allow a printer to tweak the layout to ensure that a book would finish at the end of a sheet and wouldn’t overrun and require a page or two to be printed on a different sheet.3 That’s the theory anyway but a new acquisition we’ve made demonstrates that things didn’t always work this way…

Opening section and woodcut illustration in Sanders's 1727 edition of Pilgrim's Progress in 8-pt type

Opening section and woodcut illustration4 in Sanders’s 1727 edition of Pilgrim’s Progress in 8-pt type (Sp Coll Mu Add. 253)

The book in question is a 1727 edition of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress printed here in Glasgow by Robert Sanders the Younger (fl. 1694-1730).5 It is a small pocket-sized book 192 pages long; each copy is made from eight printed sheets of paper folded into gatherings of 24 pages (12 pages printed on each side of each sheet of paper – a 12mo format). Seven of the 8 gatherings are closely printed with tiny Brevier sized type (equivalent to 8-point) but when we reach the last gathering (the final 24 pages), something strange happens. The first 8 pages of this final gathering continue to be printed in the same manner as the preceding gatherings but when we reach the 9th page, the type size suddenly changes and jumps up to 14-point text and continues this way. So far so odd. But if you compare this book with some other small books printed by Sanders a pattern begins to develop. A 12mo “Second part” of Pilgrim’s Progress printed by Sanders in 1717 uses 8-point type for the first six gatherings before shifting up to 14-point for the final gathering. Similarly a 12mo “Third part” of Pilgrim’s Progress also printed in 1717 uses 8-point for the first five gatherings before shifting to 14-point midway through the final gathering.

So what is going on? It looks to my eye as if Sanders wasn’t one to waste time planning things out! Rather than casting off at the outset and working out exactly how much paper would be required and ensuring that the pages would fill up each sheet, he made an adjustment when he neared the end of the text. If there weren’t enough pages to fill out the gathering he simply set bigger type so that it took up more space! This produced works which were far from aesthetically pleasing.

A change from 8-pt to 14pt type midway through the final gathering (Sp Coll Mu Add. 253)

A change from 8-pt to 14-pt type midway through the final gathering (Sp Coll Mu Add. 253)

Poor Robert Sanders does not get a good write up from historians of printing. William Duncan comments that “A few of the works first printed by him were tolerably executed, but his later publications are extremely paltry and inaccurate”6 while James Maclehose is equally critical stating that most of the books he issued were small and unimportant and that he “did not add to, nor even sustain, the moderate reputation as a printer which his father had made”.7 More recently Michael Moss has mounted a limited defence of Sanders, on the grounds that though he may have been guilty of issuing some “slip-shod” publications, he was nevertheless a successful businessman and that the criticisms by the likes of William Duncan are little more than “snobbishness towards popular print”.8 This criticism does, I think have some merit. Glasgow printing of the eighteenth century is often looked at through the prism of the celebrated Foulis Press with their beautifully produced classical works with immaculate typography. But the Foulis Press was still decades away while Sanders was at work and it is an unfair comparison to make.9 Sanders was producing popular books at affordable prices for a local market while the Foulis, active from the 1740s, secured their reputation producing elite texts for elite readers throughout Europe. Well however you rate Robert Sanders’s little books, they’re certainly interesting as evidence for the printing process. I rather like them.

1It should be said that a number of different sized sheets of paper were available for book printing from Pot, the smallest (c. 40×31 cm), to Super Royal, the largest (c. 70×50 cm). See: Philip Gaskell A new introduction to bibliography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972) pp. 73-5. From looking at the finished bound book, it’s very difficult to tell what size the original sheet might have been (for more on this see William Noel and George Gordon’s “Needham calculator”: http://www.needhamcalculator.net/needham_calculator1.pdf)
2Though large thick folios like Bibles were sometimes ‘quired’, where each gathering might consist of two or more sheets tucked one inside the other making folio gatherings of 8 or 12 pages rather than the standard 4. For more see Philip Gaskell A new introduction to bibliography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972) pp. 82-3
3See Philip Gaskell A new introduction to bibliography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972) pp. 40-41
4For an account of the history of illustrations in Pilgrim’s Progress and their importance to its popularity see: Nathalie Collé-Bak ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress, Print Culture and the Dissenting Tradition’ in Sandro Jung (ed.) British Literature and Print Culture (Woodbridge: D.S. Brewer, 2013) pp. 33-57.
5For more on Sanders and other former University of Glasgow printers see: In Aedibus Academicis: The Glasgow University Press – A selection of books from the printers of the University of Glasgow. Devised for the 2008 celebration of 500 years of Scottish printing.
6William Duncan Notices and documents illustrative of the literary history of Glasgow, during the greater part of last century (Glasgow: Maitland Club, 1831), p. 3
7James Maclehose The Glasgow University Press 1638-1931 (Glasgow: Glasgow University Press, 1931), p. 93
8Michael Moss ‘Glasgow’ in Stephen W. Brown and Warren McDougall (eds.) The Edinburgh History of the Book in Scotland, vol. 2 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012), p. 157
9Thanks to Craig Lamont for raising this point with me.

Categories: Archives and Special Collections

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4 replies

  1. Thank you for this interesting information. 🙂 — Suzanne

  2. Reblogged this on Kristen Twardowski and commented:
    As a fan of libraries, the University of Glasgow’s blog is one of my favorite resources. Check out this post to discover what old books can tell us about the history of printing.

    If you haven’t explore their site yet, I encourage you to do so. It is a paradise for book lovers.

  3. Reblogged this on A Very Fine Library and commented:
    An interesting post explaining why we talk about ‘folio’ and ’12mo’ sized books. A nice accompaniment to my previous post ‘Adventures with auld Acts: Pre-1707 Acts of the Scottish Parliament’

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