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In general, the received opinion concerning press figures[3] is that they were inserted, one to a forme, by the compositor, at the direction of the overseer, in order to identify the press designated to receive the forme, to facilitate an equitable distribution of the work among the presses, and to corroborate each pressman's claim for pay.[4] Contradicting these several suppositions, all of which are founded on cursory comment in printers' manuals published early in the nineteenth century, is other comment from the same sources. Elsewhere it is noted, to the contrary, that it was the pressman's responsibility to work with figures, that in small shops the office of overseer was nonexistent,[5] and that all employees were paid by the hour, the day, or the week, as the convenience of the employer might dictate, and not, as the figures would imply, according to the number of sheets they had worked.[6] To this conflicting testimony may be added that of the books, which show no equitable distribution of the figures, in many instances no figures at all, and, in some, sheets which are only partially figured. And as a final piece of confusion, it is well to recall a chapel rule of 1734 enjoining the pressmen "to put in the Drawer, one of a Sort of every Job, with their Names, the No. wrought, and Day of the Month."[7] For the shops in which this regulation applied, figures would be superfluous, whatever their purpose in the organization of the work or the payment of the men.


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From the foregoing account it will be apparent that the information in the manuals is quite unenlightening, not only because it is inadequate, but because it indiscriminately reports practices which seemingly vary with the time, the shop, and the number of men employed. Custom or circumstance may require, for some books, the figuring of every sheet, whether or not the work had been predetermined; for others, figures only at the end of a specified period of time; and for others, figures only on those occasions when the work had been disrupted or reassigned. Thus any theory envisaging a uniform procedure in an unorganized, laissez-faire handicraft must be regarded with suspicion.

With this caveat against arguments based on selected testimony rather than direct observation, we may turn to those which have at least the merit of being empirical. An obvious approach to the problem, and the one taken by Dr. F. B. Kaye and Mr. Knotts, is to discover the procedure which results in the erratic employment of figures in a single book. For Dr. Kaye the unfigured formes represent the work of a press which is properly identified in the sheet immediately preceding or following the sequence.[8] For Mr. Knotts, on the other hand, they designate the work of an unidentified press.

The indication that a forme of any gathering had been printed by this press would be the absence of a number. An examination of a number of eighteenth-century books reveals that often when some (but not all) sheets in a book are figured there are more without press numbers than with them. This suggests that the figures were used to identify formes of sheets which had been worked off by any press other than the one which was doing the bulk of the job.[9]
If this latter hypothesis is correct, then we must assume that the printing offices in the eighteenth century, most of which had a normal complement of about twelve pressmen and eighteen compositors,[10] assigned the greater portion of their work to a single press, and only an occasional forme to others. Though we may doubt that the offices were managed as inefficiently as Mr. Knotts seems to imply, his interpretation of the figures is, theoretically, as plausible as the one advanced by Dr. Kaye.


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The dilemma which confronts the bibliographer is easily resolved, for some books, by reference to the headlines, a kind of evidence overlooked by Mr. Knotts. When the headlines can be distinguished in books containing press figures, they provide a means for the analysis of the figures, and a measure for accepting or rejecting the opposing interpretations. In Gay's Fables (1727), for example, a quarto collating A 4 B-Z4 2A2, the figures are so distributed that, as Mr. Knotts observes, no grouping results of the order required by Dr. Kaye's hypothesis. If the figures are correlated with the headlines, however, a pattern emerges which appears to substantiate the very theory Mr. Knotts intended to disprove.

Discounting the headline skeletons for gatherings B, C, and D, all of which are indeterminable, we may represent the others as follows: Now according to Mr. Knotts' belief, no less than forty formes were machined by a single individual, and only seven by the three pressmen identified as 4, 5, and 7. But according to the available evidence, as it may be read from the headlines, the work was more equally divided and the figures revealed to be somewhat more meaningful than Mr. Knotts supposes. The only acceptable interpretation, it seems to me, is this: Two men are originally assigned to the job at "half press" (i.e., one man to a machine), their names properly recorded in the ledger, and their work organized so that they operate in tandem, with one man machining both formes of the sequence?C-E-G-I, and the other, both formes of the alternate sequence?B-?D-F-H-K. Upon the completion of K, the work is interrupted: skeletons I and II are interchanged; III and IV are pied, discarded, or mislaid; V and VI are composed; and two other men take the place of those originally assigned.


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These identify themselves as 5 and 7 in order to obviate any dispute as to where the "hours" of work for one group ended, and those for the other began.[11] Printing then proceeds through P in the same manner as before, when there is a second interruption, marked, we will note, by the insertion of a figure 4 in each sequence at Q and R. What this signifies, apparently, is that the work previously distributed between two machines operating, as we have conjectured, at half press, is now undertaken as a single sequence by one machine employing two men (4 and an assistant) at full press. Had 4 figured only one of the two sheets, R, for instance, the indication would be that he is replacing 5 only in the one sequence while 7 continues with the other. But since he figures Q as well as R, he signalizes the termination of work by both of his predecessors, assumes credit for all of that which follows, and presumably operates at such a rate—at full press, probably—that he requires for his work the services of the same number of compositors, and the same number of formes, which had been used before. If a single compositor, using two formes, were needed for each of the two presses operating from B to P at half-capacity, then the total of two compositors and four formes might be required for a single press operating from Q to X at full capacity. That 4, with an assistant, is able to work twice as fast and thus to accomplish twice as much in a given period, is confirmed, it would seem, by the time divisions, which show that while the other pressmen, working individually, machine only two or three sheets in a week, 4 machines no less than six.

Unlike the others, 4 anticipates the end of his assignment, and marks it at outer X. Once again work is suspended, over Sunday, we may suppose, to be resumed by 5. And since 5 also requires the labors of the two compositors who had been previously assigned to separate presses, he too figures one of the formes supplied by each, verifying the fact that 4 is no longer at work, and then finishes the production by machining Y, Z, 2A, and presumably A. The grouping throughout, we may conclude, is quite apparent, the significance of the numbers for this work not incomprehensible, and their distribution exactly in accordance with Dr. Kaye's premises. For this poem, at any rate, the figures mark the


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inception and the extent of the work undertaken by those not originally assigned to the job.

If this is a reasonable interpretation of the evidence, it follows that an examination of books containing press figures and headlines will permit inferences not to be drawn when one or the other of these indications is absent. In the Fables the figures alone allow no demonstrable theory, and the headlines only a presumption that two presses were operating throughout. But the facts do not always conform to our expectations. Where there are no figures, as in the second volume of the Spectator [12] and in sheets K-2F of the fifth volume, the presumption is, for want of other evidence, indisputable. Where there are figures of a pattern like that in the fourth volume, the presumption is apparently confirmed. But where they are of another pattern, as in the Fables, and in the fourth edition of the Fable of the Bees, the presumption applies only for certain sheets. And for such works as John Williams' Vindication of the Answer to the Popish Address (1688) it does not seem to apply at all. This tract, a quarto collating A-E4 F2, is of the following pattern: Throughout the major portion of this work, and occasionally in the two Fables we have considered, a single press, first τ for A-B, and then * for C-D, seems to be operating at such speed (at full press?), or processing so few sheets, that four skeleton formes are allocated for the job in order to lend more fluidity to the time of distribution. Only in the last two sheets is there a shift in the arrangement, and then the skeletons are distributed, not in the manner we might expect, with I-II to one press and III to another, but with I-II to two presses, and III again to one of these, probably τ.

A correlation of the evidence necessitates a modification of our views concerning books with two sets of headlines as well as


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with those having four. Again there seems to be more disorder than the headlines alone reveal. For the eighth volume of the Spectator the absence of figures implies only a continuance of a process as it had been prearranged, which might be that of a single press machining all sheets, or that of two presses simultaneously machining the inner and outer formes. For the several editions of Clement Ellis's The Protestant Resolved (1688), on the other hand, some other and more specific explanation is required. The patterns are these: In each of these there is no indication, from the headlines, of two presses. From the figures, however, we learn that while * and τ have individually done most of the work performed in shop "B", both simultaneously machined sheets I and K of the first edition, and G, H, and presumably I of the second. Also observe that the termination of the work by the extra press is carefully marked, by a τ in outer L of the first edition, and by an * in inner K of the second. Once again the figures prevent unwarranted claims for pay.

James Macpherson's Temora (1763) presents another instance of the extent to which the headlines or the figures, if considered separately, may mislead the bibliographer. In this poem the identification of two sets of headlines, each used successively, one for the inner forme, one for the outer, might indicate work on a single press. The notation of a variety of marks, however, would seem to justify the assertion that the sheets were simultaneously processed by as many as ten different pressmen. Actually neither assumption appears to be valid. Either a number of men were working in relay on two presses or, less plausibly, the formes were allocated to any available press, but to no more than two at a time. Whatever the procedure, it was obviously erratic, undetermined by the overseer, and thus necessitated the marking


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of every forme to certify the identity of the men performing the work.[13]

One other relationship remains to be examined: that between the figures and three sets of headlines. When the third skeleton appears only occasionally it is very probably the one usually employed for the proofing press, but used for final work if one of the other skeletons is unavailable. If intermittently employed, as in sheets B-F of the first edition of Ellis's The Protestant Resolved, no identification is required for any of the formes, since all would represent the work of a single press. An example of a more systematic use of the third press is observed in Susannah Centlivre's The Busie Body [1709][14] Here, for some reason (perhaps it may be—as we have conjectured before—that 3 is working full press), all but one of the formes through F are marked.[15] After F there is a disruption involving, this time, not a discontinuance of certain forme-skeletons, but a reallocation, apparently for half-press work by three presses operating in succession. Number 3 worked both formes of G, presumably, 5 those of H, 2 those of I, and 3, again, those of K. The regular pattern of figures and headlines which might appear when several presses are operating successively would not be evident, however, when they are operating simultaneously. In this situation any one of the three formes would go to the press that was ready to take it. Consequently the sequence would be indeterminable, subject to arguments later on as to the hours of work performed, and requiring, therefore, as in similar instances cited above, the identification of every forme. A typical example of such an operation appears in the first volume of the Spectator.


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From this preliminary survey of the correspondence or, more often, the discrepancy between the headlines and the figures in eighteenth-century books, it will be agreed that investigation based on one kind of evidence to the exclusion of the other leads to an oversimplification of the problems involved. Before the expiration of the Licensing Act in 1695 the process of bookmaking was undoubtedly less confused than afterwards: only thirty-five master printers were authorized to practice the trade,[16] and most of these, we may be sure, conformed to the regulation limiting the number of presses and apprentices for each shop. During this period, then, extraneous conditions have not only provided the bibliographer with certain means for detecting occasional irregularities in the production of a book, as these are discerned in various types, headlines, and paper, but limited the output of books he has to examine to relatively few and comparatively well-organized establishments. After 1695, though, the conditions for disorder increase in approximately the same ratio as the means for detecting it disappear. By the end of the eighteenth century the personnel of the trade numbered no less than 2815,[17] but the materials of the trade—ink, paper, and type—had become so standardized that little is known or will ever be known of what these several thousand persons were doing. Even the press figures are uncommunicative. When they appear they seem to indicate a process which is disrupted, reassigned, or uncontrolled, printing engaged at half or full press, simultaneously or sequentially, and, rather obscurely, production over a certain period of time.[18] But they do not reveal, in all instances, the necessity for their appearance, nor the precise information conveyed to the person who ordered their insertion. Thus they remain, at best, as intimations of what will never be fully divulged.[19]