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Center Rules in Folio Printing: A New Kind of Bibliographical Evidence
James S. Steck

Even more useful than running-titles for identifying the skeleton-formes used to print a book are the box-rules enclosing the type-pages of various hand-printed folios.[1] Bald and Willoughby have demonstrated that the strips of metal constituting the box-rules were treated by early printers as integral parts of the skeleton-forme. However, a problem which has not been formally considered is the relation of the center rule separating the two columns of a double-column folio type-page to the enclosing box-rules. A study of Section 5 of the 1647 Beaumont and Fletcher Folio produces previously unsuspected bibliographical evidence which, when fully developed, may make possible a more minute study of the processes of early printing.

The first fact revealed is that the center rule[2] does not bear to the box the same relation which the box maintains to the skeleton-forme: in other words, the center rule cannot be considered an integral part of the skeleton-forme.


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As an illustration I have made up a table for the various appearances of these center rules in the first six gatherings of Griffin's section (Section 5) of the Beaumont and Fletcher Folio.[3]


The evidence of this partial table shows clearly that because of the irregular occurrence of the center rules within the various skeletons and their boxes, no reliance in difficult cases may be placed upon center rules as a means of identifying the box-rules in which they are found.

The irregular appearance of these rules requires explanation. When the printer came to impose the type-pages of a new forme, the box-rules enclosing the wrought-off type-pages would be transferred as an integral part of the skeleton; but on the evidence of the table, the center rule—in effect a part of the type-page itself—was not removed from the type-page until distribution of at least one column of type had been effected. The reason would appear to be fairly simple. To leave the center rule between the two columns is


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obviously an expedient to prevent the pieing which would almost certainly ensue if the rule were removed before the compositor was ready to distribute the type.[4]

The recurrence of these center rules in different formes, however irregularly, indicates that the compositor found it a convenience to have on hand a supply of rules made up to the proper length. We should thus expect him to lay the center rule aside on the bench, once it had been freed from its type-page by the distribution of a column of letterpress. Hence, there is the possibility of estimating at least the maximum distribution period for a type-page by tracing the reappearance of its center rule in another forme. This evidence, of course, can never be completely exact. We have no reason to believe that a compositor would always pick up a center rule in the precise order in which it had been laid aside on the bench. Moreover it is necessary to inquire just when he would place the center rule between the columns of a newly-composed type-page. The answer is of some interest as revealing the precise way in which, on the evidence of Griffin's section, a large double-column type-page was composed.

There are two possibilities. First, after completing the first column of his page, the compositor might take a center rule from the bench, lay it in the page-galley against the type margin, and then proceed to set the second column, transferring type from his composing-stick until the two-column page-galley was complete. If he did so, he would have an uncomfortably large type-page to transfer, by means of his slice, from the page-galley to the composing-stone. That this operation was possible is shown by the various folios which are set in a single column of long lines, but there would seem to be little question that with a double-column page a single column of type would be easier to handle as a unit. For this reason we might expect a compositor to follow the second alternative and transfer the letterpress from his page-galley to the stone after he had completed only a single column. If he did so, he could then (a) place his center rule beside the column, or (b) insert it when the second column was composed and placed beside the first on the stone, or (c) there could be a delay until two completed type-pages were ready and were being imposed from the skeleton of a wrought-off forme.

A study of gathering 5A indicates that, at least for this section of the folio, the compositor adopted the third method (c). When we follow him in the order of composition, we see that type-page 1 recto uses an unidentified


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rule, 1 verso rule 1, and 2 recto rule 2. But when on 2 verso we find rule 1 once more, it is clear that this rule can appear in these two pages only if it had been inserted as a part of the process of imposition.[5]

By this demonstration that the rule in question would be placed in a new type-page at the last possible moment, we can narrow our estimate of the spread in time between the moment when a rule becomes available by the distribution of at least one column of its type-page, and the time when the rule is employed again. In turn, this greater precision should enable us to estimate more accurately in these double-column folios the chronological relation between imposition and presswork on a new forme and distribution of the type-pages of a wrought-off forme. Clearly, the kind of evidence afforded by center rules must always be used to supplement and to check the evidence from running-titles and box-rules in any attempt to break down the precise method by which two presses printed a related series of sheets.[6]


R. C. Bald in his monograph, Bibliographical Studies in the Beaumont and Fletcher Folio of 1647 (1938) and E. E. Willoughby's earlier study, The Printing of the First Folio of Shakespeare (1932) made extensive use of the evidence of box-rules to augment the information yielded by the various running-titles. The most recent study of this printing problem, the work of G. A. Battle, appears above in this present volume, supplementing his more extensive study which interestingly demonstrates that under certain conditions the box-rules are more trustworthy than running-titles to identify various skeleton-formes. See his "The Case of the Altered 'C'—A Bibliographical Problem in the Beaumont and Fletcher First Folio," Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, XLII (1948), 66-70.


For convenience I refer to a center "rule" even though actually a center rule is ordinarily composed of two, or more, short touching rules, one of which is generally longer than the other. The two rules can appear in all possible relations to each other; sometimes both rules are reversed so that the longer section appears at times above the shorter rule, and at other times below it; at other times the sections of the rules maintain the same linear relationship to each other, but are reversed in direction, thus preserving their identity, but rendering the task of following them through the various gatherings extremely exacting.


The boxes, which in effect represent the skeletons, are composed of two horizontal rules enclosing the running title, another horizontal rule at the bottom of the type-page which separates it from the tail of the page, and two vertical rules along the right and left margins of the type-page. There are two such boxes in each skeleton-forme; therefore, for the sake of clarity, we shall number each of the three skeleton-formes used in printing this section I, II, and III, further distinguishing the two halves with the letters a and b. Thus, the inner sheet of gathering 5A was printed with skeleton-forme IIa-IIb; and the outer sheet of the same gathering was printed with skeleton-forme Ia-Ib. At times the boxes are reversed in position, as in the outer forme of the outer sheet of gathering 5E, which was perfected with skeleton-forme IIb-IIa. In the same manner are numbered the center rules, using arabic numerals, with α and β to distinguish the two touching sections of the rule.


We may compare Moxon's description of the manner in which a forme is unlocked: "The Reason why he opens the Foot-Quoins first, is, because the Letter is less subject to Squabble between Line and Line (that is Head and Foot, the length of the Page) than it is between side and side (the breadth of the Page) . . ." (Mechanick Exercises, ed. De Vinne [1896], II, 202).


If printing, as we must assume, is made from the inside out, forme 2v.3 would have been the first on the press; hence the center rule from 1v.4 (which will be the next-to-last forme of the gathering to be printed) would not be available for transfer to 2 verso if either (a) or (b) had obtained. Similarly, rule 2 can appear on 2 recto and 3 recto not if it is inserted at the moment of composition, but only at the time of imposition.


Such a complete analysis still remains to be made of the difficult problem presented by the presswork in Griffin's section of the folio, which seems to have been printed with a second press irregularly assisting the press assigned to the job.