History of the Common Press

History of the Press

The invention of the common press was truly monumental and it is frequently seen as one of humankind’s most important inventions. [1] The wooden common press and movable type, like that used by Gent, sparked a revolution in communication and culture in the mid-15th to late 18th centuries. It facilitated an unprecedented circulation of information in comparison to oral culture and texts copied by hand.

‘At the same time, then, as the printing press in the physical, technological sense was invented, ‘the press’ in the extended sense of the word also entered the historical stage. The phenomenon of publishing was born.’ [2]

Woodcut depicting Thomas Gent
A woodcut depicting Thomas Gent c.1730 at work in his printing house.
How it Works

The common press is a beautiful and striking piece of machinery. Up to seven high, around five feet long, and three feet wide, the imposing wooden frame easily overshadows its operators.

Printing press at the British Library
Printing press at the British Library © takomabibelot

The type, made of metal with a raised letter on one end, is set using a composing stick. Once the words of the text have been created, the type is moved from the composing stick onto the composing stone and surrounded with strips of furniture for packing and a frame called a chase. Quoins (expanding wedges) are tightened to lock-up the type and furniture within the chase. The finished product is known as a forme. The forme is transferred to the press and ink is rolled across the raised letters. Then, paper is placed on the tympan and held with the frisket. The bed of the press is rolled under the palten and the puller uses the bar to exert pressure on the inked type. As the pressure is released an impression is revealed. It may be heavy work, but two pressmen working together with artistry and dedication, one pulling and the other standing by with the ink balls ready to coat the type with ink, could have produced between 3,200 and 3,600 impressions per day. [3]

Building the Reproduction Press

Our journey to build a reproduction wooden common printing press began in Scarborough with a press that once belonged to Thomas Gent. Thanks to collaboration and consultation with staff at Scarborough Museums we were granted access to the remains of the old press and hope to soon transport it to York, so it can be used to aid the building process and then be housed alongside our reproduction.

The Gent Press at Scarborough Museums
The Gent Press at Scarborough Museums
The Gent Press at Scarborough Museums 2
The Gent Press at Scarborough Museums

To follow the reconstruction of the common press, and our work with other presses, check out the blog and follow Thin Ice Press on social media.

[1] In 1997, Time–Life magazine picked Gutenberg’s invention as the most important of the second millennium and it frequently crops up in other lists of the most important inventions of all time.
[2] Johannes Weber, Strassburg, 1605: The Origins of the Newspaper in Europe”, German History 24, no. 3 (2006): 337.
[3] ‘From old price tables it can be deduced that the capacity of a printing press around 1600, assuming a fifteen-hour workday, was between 3,200 and 3,600 impressions per day’ – Hans-Jürgen Wolf, Geschichte der Druckpressen (Frankfurt/Main: Interprint, 1974): 67.


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