Illustrations of typesetting at Firmin-Didot in 1855

The wood-engravings of typesetting, correction and imposition in Lefèvres printers’ manual are among the most vivid and informative illustrations of the delicate work – and heavy lifting – involved in hand typesetting. They are by the celebrated wood-engraver Jacques Adrien Lavieille; I have not yet identified the artist. This post introduces Lavielle and reproduces the illustrations with a brief commentary – its not a full translation of the text, but enough I hope to explain what is going on in the images. There are some interesting differences between the French and British and American practice, which may be better known to some readers.[1]


The book

Théotiste Lefèvre was responsible for setting up the Firmin-Didot printing establishment at Mesnil, near Dreux outside Paris in 1835. I have twice catalogued the first edition of his Guide pratique du compositeur d’imprimerie (Paris: Firmin Didot frères, 1855–72) and though I had transcribed the wood-engraver’s name, I had not identified him (the copies were sold to Massey College, Toronto in 2004 and to the Bancroft Library in 2007). Cataloguing a copy of the second edition (1883) which uses the same blocks (see the for sale page) prompts me to reproduce all the wood-engravings with some background and commentary. 

The wood-engraver

As well as the engraver’s name ‘Lavieille’ on the first block (but none of the others), what is I assume the artists name as ‘Marc’ (though I am uncertain of the transcription) with the M as a monogram of an inverted V over the M with which the other cuts are signed, apart from the second cut on page 19 which repeats the ‘Marc’ signature. I have not been able to trace this artist. Jacques Adrien Lavieille (1818–1862) on the other hand is well known and is given a longish entry by Benezit, describing him as one of the best engravers of the 1830s school. He studied at the Ecole des beaux-arts and then trained under the famous artist and wood-engraver, Antoine (Tony) Johannot (1803–1852), described by Théophile Gautier as the King of illustrators [2]. He spent a year in London, in the workshop of the Williams family (Benezit). There were three Williams siblings who were all wood-engravers and occasionally designed their own cuts, Samuel, Thomas and Mary Anne. Jackson gives Samuel and Thomas ‘honourable mentions’ and notes that some of Mary Anne’s cuts ‘are very neatly executed’. [3] All three contributed to the great show case of wood-engraving, the Curmer edition of Bernadin de Saint-Pierre’s Paul et Virginie (Paris 1858). According to Bellier’s dictionary Lavielle collaborated on this project but this may be an error as he did not produce any of the designs or cuts for the work. [4] Better known are his series of ten wood-engravings of 1853 after J. F. Millet’s country scenes of which Van Gough made painted copies. [5] Though widely published in books and magazines, in 1862 at the age of 44 he committed suicide. According to French Wikipedia, he was made desperate by the publishers’ disaffection for his work (like many wood-engravers of the time) and threw himself out of the window of his apartment. [6].


The series of wood-engravings show clearly what is described in detail in the text. I have not attempted to paraphrase all the text as the illustrations do a very good job of showing the exact positions of fingers and thumbs in setting and moving type, the cord wound round the hand in tying up a page, finger and bodkin lifting a line for correction, and the correct health-and-safety stance for lifting a forme of type (in the section on imposition which I will show in a later post). All the cuts are set within the measure of 92mm and I have cropped all the images to this width. 

The first image shows the compositor at case. He is a senior member of the firm, a younger man is shown later lifting a heavy forme of type. He holds a composing stick (compositeur) in his left hand and is reading the copy on the visorum on the right. In a footnote Lefèvre decries the trend not to use the visorum which he says is superior to other methods of holding the copy. Also on the right, partially hidden by the visorum, is a galley. The copy is well lit from the window on the compositor’s left and the dormer windows of the houses opposite suggest that he is working on an upper floor. Under the composing frame are what might be loosely bound manuscripts and a forme of type is leant against it.

The composing stick is shallow, holding only one line of type and held with the four fingers on the open side, under the face of the letter.

The thumb holds the types in place as they are added to the line. 

Having read from the copy as much of the line as he can remember, the compositor starts setting, sighting each sort in the case and noting the position of the face of the letter and the nick, turns it in his fingers on the way to placing it the stick, the letters upside down and the nick against the face of the composing stick. The nick thus ensures that the letters are the right way up. (In France, unlike Britain and America, the nick was on the back of the sort, that is above the letter. [6]) As each letter is picked up in the right hand, the left hand leans the stick over slightly to receive it. When he reaches the end of the stick, the compositor reads the line, corrects any errors and justifies it by replacing the spaces between words as necessary. (As anyone who has set type will recall, although the text is in mirror image, because the letters are set upside down, the line reads from left to right. Similarly, which confronted with a page of set type, its usually easier to read it upside down.) 

The stick contains only one – as shown –  or two lines of type. These can now be transferred to the galley, keeping the stick in the left hand and lifting them out of the composing stick supported by the interlinear spacing or a wooden strip or reglet (filet) if the text is unleaded. 

The galley rests at an angle on the upper case, as was seen in the first illustration on page 3.

If the stick contains more than two lines, it has to be put down on the case against the ledge at the bottom and the lines of type lifted out with both hands.

The lines of type, supported on both sides by leads or reglet can then be transferred to the galley.

Although four lines of type are set and transferred in these last two illustrations, the previous ones show the typical shallow French stick holding only one line of type, which could be transferred line by line without putting the stick down. As Philip Gaskell notes ‘This was quickly done and probably took no more time over-all than the English method of emptying the stick with both hands every four or five lines.’ [8] It is interesting therefore that here both methods are described and illustrated, evidently the deep stick was also in use on occasion in France.

Once a convenient number of lines has been set they can be tied tightly with page cord wound round several times and tucked in with a bodkin or spacing lead. In a footnote, Lefèvre says that it is a mistake to fill several galleys and then divide the composition as it wastes time and unnecessarily runs the risk of pieing the type (mettre en pâte. In other words, tying the blocks of text up immediately removes the risk of knocking over lines of type and mixing up the letters.) 

Once tied up, the block of type can be lifted from the galley with two hands, then the left hand released to take a sheet of paper. 

The page of type is placed on the paper, the right hand releases it quickly and takes hold again round the wrapper which can then be folded round the block of type. 

Although in this passage Lefèvre refers to this block of type as a page, earlier he instructs the compositor to tie up a convenient or suitable (convenu) block of text. Whether it’s a full page or part of a page, it does not include a headline (running title and pagination) and direction line (for the signature). These are added later as described under mise en pages from page 21 where he states that the packets are reassembled and divided into pages of equal length. This is contrary to Moxon’s procedure of setting the headline and direction line (at that time including the catchword) before tying up and wrapping the page.[9] The long galleys from which authors’ proofs were taken were not yet in use. 

When the case becomes almost depleted of one or more sorts, the compositor turns to distribution, that is refilling the boxes in the case from pages that have already been printed. From a page of type placed in the galley he takes up ten or twelve lines on a lead or reglet with both hands.

The block is tipped on to the right hand and the left hand is released and readied to take back the block of type. 

The block is balanced on the middle finger, steadied with the index finger along the back.

The compositor can now take off two or three words between his thumb, index finger and middle finger. He reads the words (as with setting, the type is upside down so reads left to right) and spelling out the words drops the letters into the compartments in the case . As always Moxon describes the process vividly: ‘ … he brings what he has taken off towards his Sight to read; then with a sleight thrusting the Ball of his Thumb outwards, he spreads and Squabbles the shanks of the Letters between his Fingers askew; and remembering what Letters he read, he nimbly addresses his Hand with a continued motion to every respective Box, which his Fingers, as they pass by, lets a Letter drop into, till his Taking off be quite Destributed.’ [10]


Correcting the metal is done to rectify the compositor’s errors or the author’s changes to the text. It can be done in galley or on the imposing stone. Its easier to justify the corrected lines in the galley.

Correction in galley

The packet of text to be corrected is placed in a galley resting at a slope of the case; a reglet is placed against the free ends of the lines to stop them falling over. The proof is placed above the galley and having found the place, if it is near the end of a line a group of words containing the correction is lifted with the bodkin, pressing the line against the index finger of the left hand as shown. If the word is far from the end of a line bodkin and finger lift the word alone. (Lefèvre prefers the bodkin to tweezers which are more liable to damage the letters.) The index finger of the left hand, no longer pressed against the end of the line, pushes down the letters that dont need to be changed and thumb and index finger takes hold of the letter or word that needs changing. The text explains that the bodkin is held like a pen in lifting the words, as shown in the engraving, then by a movement of the fingers the point is raised and the handle goes into the palm of the hand. The bodkin can now be held with the last three fingers, leaving the thumb and index finger to take up the correction, insert it in the space and press it down with the flat of the handle of the bodkin. In the English and American manuals the whole line is lifted and this manipulation of the bodkin is not mentioned [9]. Once the corrections are made and the spacing adjusted as necessary, the justification can be checked by feel with the index finger against the ends of the surrounding lines – again this is not described in the English and American manuals.

Where the correction necessitates taking back or forwards, the necessary words are lifted out of the galley as shown and placed in the stick for justification.

Correction on the stone

The first task is to get the forme onto the imposing stone. The form is balanced on the corner of page 8, the right hand is over the angle of page 5 and the left hand holds the chase between pages 1 and 8. A quick glance at the imposition scheme on p. 582 shows that this is the first outer forme of text.

The forme is lifted to the height of the stone and rested on the corner of page 8 and pushed forwards to where it is held by the right hand which now moves up to between pages 4 and 5. The two hands can then turn the forme square to the edge of the stone, slide down the sides as far as the foot quoins, and let it down onto the stone with without dropping it, and finally push it all the way onto the stone. The outer forme is lifted onto the stone in the same way and place to the right of the inner forme. The forme is then unlocked in order and to give enough play for the corrections to be made, the larger quoins from the sides and foot placed on the top bar of the chase.



Carrying the forme


[1] Joseph Moxon, Mechanick Exercises on the Whole Art of Printing (London: 1683), best read in the annotated edition by Herbert Davis and Harry Carter (Oxford University Press 1958, second edition 1962). Moxon’s enjoyable prose makes the manual operations very clear. The account of typesetting in Philip Gaskell, New Introduction to Bibliogrphy (Oxford, 1972), pp. 40–56 leans heavily on Moxon, but taking into account practices at other times and places. For British and American nineteenth-century practice, extracts from a range of manuals is are reprinted in Richard-Gabriel Rummonds, Nineteenth-century printing practices and the iron handpress, Newcastle, DE: Oak Knoll; and London, British Library, 2004.
[2] Théophile Gautier, article paru dans La Presse du 16 juin 1845 et réédité dans Portraits contemporains cited in fr.wikipedia.
[3] Jackson, John. A Treatise on Wood Engraving, Historical and Practical, with Upwards of Three Hundred Illustrations Engraved on Wood. 2nd ed. London: H.G. Bohn, 1861, p. 633.
[4] Bellier de La Chavignerie, Émile. Dictionnaire général des artistes de l’École française depuis l’origine des arts du dessin jusqu’à nos jours (Paris, 1821–1871), vol. I p. 932.
[5] Ronald Pickvance, Van Gough’s in Saint-Rémy and Auvers (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987) p. 45. For images of Lavieille’s wood-engravings after Millet see the Art Institute of Chicago,
[6] I have not discovered the source of this story but it may be in article cited by Charles Asselineau in Le Courrier Artistique, 1er août 1862.
[7] And as in Germany, Holland, Flanders and the Province of Lyons according to Pierre-Simon Fournier, Manuel typographique (1764), vol I, p. 164. Fournier does not mention British foundries. For the nomenclature of type and a good diagram showing the position of the nick on the front of the sort, under the letter, see Philip Gaskell, New Introduction to Bibliography (1972), p. 9. The advantage of the nick under the letter, in this fashion, as opposed to the French fashion, is that when a line has been set in the stick it is immediately obvious if a letter is turned or from a wrong fount.
[8] Gaskell 1972, p. 47.
[9] Moxon 1962, p. 210.
[8] Moxon 1962) p. 202.
[9] Rummonds I, 389–399.