Tag Archives: book production

Nicolas Jenson

Nicolas Jenson

The mechanized printing press and movable type were such radically different new technologies that printers had to soothe and reassure their customers by making their books’ text look like old-fashioned calligraphy. The metal letters mimicked the way letters are created by a pen or brush. It would take a bit of time before a typefounder said, “Oh, the heck with it” and finally designed a typeface that was meant to be printed on a printing press. No more phony hey-this-looks-like-it-just-rolled-out-of-the-scriptorium fancy-pants calligraphy.

That happened in ad 1470 and the type designer was Nicolas Jenson (zhen-SŌN). He was a Frenchman living in Italy.

Here’s a site with his beautiful type designs. You can download the typeface and there’s even a box where you can keystroke in your name or a phrase and see what it looks like a la Jenson. https://www.dafont.com/1470jenson.font

You can get Jenson’s font from these guys, too. Image credit: https://fontmeme.com/fonts/1470-jenson-font/

Jenson’s type design is inspired by old Roman majuscules for the capital letters. His lowercase letters are sorta-kinda inspired by uncial minuscules (notice Jenson’s lowercase u doesn’t look like a v). We’ll be calling capital letters ‘uppercase’ and little letters ‘lowercase’ now because that’s where they are kept in a job drawer.

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This isn’t what I’m used to


When digital watches first came out, some of them had a digitally-animated fake-analogue display. That style of watch had images of hour- and minute-hands that appeared to sweep around its face. People weren’t ready to read numbers to know the time. They needed a few years to get used to the new way of doing things.

Back when we were talking about Johannes Gutenberg and William Caxton, you could see that they tried to make their books look like they were hand-written by a bunch of scribes.

A rare sighting of scribes in the field

What is the collective noun for scribes? Best answer wins a sketch. https://readable.com/blog/a-murder-of-crows-and-other-odd-collective-nouns/

https://www.watchuseek.com/threads/watches-with-a-digital-display-that-mimic-the-hour-hands-of-a-non-digital-analogue-watch.4744371/

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Baby books


Books from these early days are called incunabula. I love this word. Incunabulum is the singular form. It’s a Latin word that literally means ‘swaddling clothes,’ what they used to wrap newborn babies in. Think of a baby in a cradle or a crib. I think the swaddling clothes or the cradle are supposed to be the early printing business. The baby is the book. Book production in its infancy. Incunabula were the cradle of book-printing, like the Tigris-Euphrates valley is the cradle of Western Civilization, or Olduvai Gorge is the cradle of human evolution, or Massachusetts is the cradle of marshmallow and peanut butter sandwiches.
https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/incunabulum
https://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-inc1.htm
Do they still make this stuff? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fluffernutter
Here is a timeline of early printing: https://www.prepressure.com/printing/history/1400-1499
https://www.ndl.go.jp/incunabula/e/chapter3/index.html

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Folios and quartos



Back in the early days of printing and paper manufacturing, there weren’t standard sizes yet. On the other hand, they did have standard names for a book’s format:
A press sheet folded in half was called a folio. You get 2 leaves or 4 pages.
If you folded the press sheet again, you get a quarto—4 leaves or 8 pages. It’s half as big as a folio.
If you folded the press sheet one more time, you get an octavo—8 leaves or 16 pages. It’s one-fourth as big as a folio.


Of course you can keep folding, at least until you get so many pages the paper won’t bend anymore. These formats get called duodecimo, sextodecimo, octodecimo…

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

Don’t forget: I wrote another Western Civ User’s Guide! Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Time & Space.