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"Press" Letters: Samuel Aris 1730-32 by Keith I. D. Maslen
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Page 119

"Press" Letters: Samuel Aris 1730-32
Keith I. D. Maslen

Single letters of the alphabet, not signatures or catchwords, disfigure the foot of certain pages in books London printed by Samuel Aris 1730-32. As each book contains only a few letters, upper or lower-case, placed one in each forme or sheet with occasional omissions, their function as press-figures is readily supposed. In Eustace Budgell, A Letter to Cleomenes (1731) occur the letters C J R W: in one copy C or C in 19 formes, J in 5 formes, R or R in 13 formes, W or w in 5 formes — other copies vary slightly.[1] No fewer than seven letters, C F I J R T W, are used in Budgell's Memoirs of the life and character of the late Earl of Orrery (1732). These letters plus g (?), l, p, and T appear in others of the seven books printed by Aris that bear press letters; J is found in all seven, C and W in five books. One has evidently stumbled across another of the 'many idiosyncratic numbers or marks adopted in some books . . . [involving] the use of letters perhaps to indicate pressmen's names'.[2]

One notices the considerable number and haphazard selection of letters, the disproportionate use of some, and the instability of their grouping. Besides three regulars, C, J, and W, another six or seven letters more occasionally appear, whilst some formes or sheets are unlettered. No doubt a larger sample would reveal more letters and other patterns. From such tangible evidence in the finished product one is unable to infer the total number either of presses or pressmen at work, since work at half-press cannot be distinguished from work at full-press requiring a second unmarked crew-member; nor can the absence of letters on occasions be taken to mean that no other presses or men are concerned.

However, something may be made of the facts by comparison with


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press-figures and related work patterns at the Bowyer Press for the same years 1730-32. Details of press-work are taken from a recently discovered Bowyer ledger, which records work done and prices charged by compositors and pressmen for the period 1730-39.[3] Three to five presses were in constant use at the Bowyer Press from March 1730 to March 1732. Occasionally there were six and rarely seven in use in any one pay period of two to four weeks. At these presses wrought from six to twelve men, usually but not always working in pairs. At one time or another altogether eight presses were in operation, corresponding with the figures 1-8 evidenced in the printed sheets. At the Bowyer Press, then, generally speaking, figures denote a press, and identify work done at that press, either by a partnership, or occasionally by one man, who regularly wrought there for a period of weeks or month. Some anomalies, apparent or real, may relate to the frequent changes in personnel and their movements within the shop.

During these two years no fewer than nineteen press-men were employed at the Bowyer Press, some for periods of only a few weeks, others during the whole time. Similarly at some presses the crew remained constant for many months at a time, whilst at others there were changes every few weeks. These phenomena are a function of many variables, including most obviously the going and coming of workmen, either permanently or temporarily, the amount of work offering, and breakdowns of equipment. At the Bowyer Press, as no doubt at any other commercial press of this or other times, frequent changes from press to press and of partnership produce complex and shifting work-patterns, not easily described and in fact impossible to infer from patterns of press-figures found in the finished product.

It is unlikely that the ten or so 'press'-letters in books printed by Aris — these having been identified as his productions by imprint, types, and ornaments — refer to actual presses. From the little known of his business one would expect him to have fewer presses than the elder Bowyer, recognized at the time as a major London printer, and even the preeminent William Strahan boasts forty years later of no more than '7, 8, or 9 Presses . . . constantly employed' in his commercial printing-house.[4] The seven press-letters in Budgell's Memoirs


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of the Earl of Orrery mentioned above may be taken to reflect changes of press-crews. Such changes are shown by the Bowyer records to be not uncommon in the life of a press.

It is intrinsically probable then that the haphazard letters refer to men, perhaps by the initial of their surname. It is not hard to believe that by comparison with Bowyer's nineteen pressmen Aris employed twelve men over roughly the same period, as delimited very approximately for Aris by title-page dates. The numerical comparison however can give little idea of the relative size and output of Aris's establishment, since one cannot assume for this period either regular employment or optimum or even steady output per man. If only one knew the names of Aris's pressmen 1730-32! The list of his apprentices given below is no help. Those apprentices out of their time before 1730 might well have taken jobs elsewhere, and in any case they are more likely to have been on the composing side, like Thomas Aris, later proprietor of the Birmingham Gazette. On the other hand, if any of the apprentices did help at press 1730-32, his labours, most likely as 'second', would not need to be marked by letter, because he would claim no wages at piece rates from his master.

Press-letters as used by Aris have the same value as figures in alerting one to possibilities of reissue, reimpression, and divided printing, as evidenced by items 9, 14 and 15 described below.

Possibly insignificant are typographical variations in press-letters: the alternation between upper and lower case letters, changes in size of type, and the occasional use of italic instead of roman. Sometimes the choice seems to have been made from the case nearest to hand, containing the type used in the text or the notes. Still it seems odd that in Budgell's Memoirs of the Earl of Orrery only W, out of the seven press-letters used, alternates between W and w or w. A similar variation in size of press-figures was noticed by J. D. Fleeman in respect of William Somerville's The Chace (1735), which was printed by Bowyer, but here on closer examination the variation seems to be without significance.[5]

Unlike figures, letters have one great inconvenience, that they may easily be confused with signatures and even catchwords, such as A and I. This is surely why they are seldom encountered.

But how 'idiosyncratic' was this use of letters? For Aris during 1730-32 it was a standard practice, since out of twelve octavos dated


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within these years and identified as coming from Aris's press, seven are lettered; indeed for 1731-32 only one book is unlettered. Aris seems to have adopted the practice, or sanctioned it, some time in 1730. Daniel Waterland's The nature, obligation, and efficacy, of the Christian Sacraments, considered, 'Printed by Sam. Aris for John Crownfield' (1730), is unmarked, but its Supplement, also dated 1730, is lettered. However, Budgell's Letter to His Excellency Mr. Ulrick D'Ypres (1731) is also unmarked. Title-page dates of course are no precise indication of the date of printing.

Before 1730 the few books recognized as Aris's, most belonging to 1727-28, have some sheets unmarked and others figured 1 or 3. After 1732 no books have been recognized as coming from Aris's press, on the evidence of imprint or printer's devices, of which Aris used at least two; by October 1734 he was dead. The above sample is too small to allow generalizations about the limits and extent of Aris's use of press-letters.

It is worth noting that other printers in this period use letters, but in ways that I shall not try to explain. Bentham at Cambridge, as remarked by Dr. McKenzie, uses b-d, 3-6, and 8 in a book of 1743, and examples of Parliamentary printing, Acts, Bills, and the King's Speeches, by John Baskett 1726-51 bear the letters B/b, C/c, e, and figures 1-8. This is a complication to be added to the 'many mysteries about press-figures yet to be solved'.[6]

The above examples, trivial in themselves, remind us that we need continually to 'reconsider our ideas about the permissible variations in the early printer's routine', and to revise and extend our notions of what is considered normal, since it is out of such notions that our bibliographical and textual hypotheses are made.[7]

I. Biographical Details of Samuel Aris

SAMUEL ARIS printer, of Creed Lane 1720?-32?; bound 6 apprentices 6 Feb. 1720/1-1 Sept. 1730; died 1734.

This summary corrects The London Compositor (1947), p. 36, where Ellic Howe gives terminal dates 1725-39, and mentions only four apprentices. Fuller details follow.

Marriage: 6 Feb. 1713/14 Saml Aris of precinct of White Friars single and Mary Whitledge of St. Martin Ludgate single by licence (Harleian Society Registers, vol. 63, St. Matthew, Friday Street).

Children: eight from 2 April 1721 to 7 Feb. 1733/4, though of these apparently only three survived their parents: Mary (b. 26 Oct., bapt. 18 Nov. 1722),


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Samuel (b.21 June, bapt. 12 July 1724), and Amy (b. 2 Feb., bapt. 7 Feb. 1733/4). The other children 1721-34 are Samuel bapt. 2 Apr. 1721, Catherine bapt. 7 Nov. 1725, Thomas bapt. 14 Feb. 1727/8, Catherine bapt. 27 July 1729, Ann bapt. 6 Sept. 1730 (Guildhall Library: Register of St Martins Ludgate).

Death: presumed between 7 February and 17 October 1734, on which date was issued a commission to Charles Bennett 'the guardian lawfully assigned to Prudence Bennett (his wife) Mary Aris and Saml Aris minors and Amy Aris an infant, children of Samuel Aris late of St Martin Ludgate London widower decd. . . .' (Admin. of Samuel Aris, PCC Admin Act Bk. 1734 f. 204, Somerset House). Queries: was Charles Bennett the apprentice named below, and was Prudence a daughter of a first marriage?

I owe the above information to M. A. Byrne of Exeter College, Oxford; its presentation my responsibility.

Address: Creed Lane is attested in the Apprentice Registers and elsewhere from 1722, and may have been Aris's only address as master. Creed Lane is said by Robert Seymour to have been 'pestered with Carts and Carrs to Puddle-dock . . . which makes it to be not overwell inhabited' (Survey of the Cities of London and Westminster, 1734, p. 701).

Bindings: 1. Robert Barlow, bd 6 Feb. 1720/1, free 5 Nov. 1728.

2. Thomas Aris, son of Thomas late citizen and barber surgeon of London deceased, bd 1 Oct. 1722, free 4 Nov. 1729. (See below).

3. James Claxton, bd 1 June 1725, turned over to Samuel Palmer 7 March 1731/2, free 7 Nov. 1732.

4. David Henry, bd 1 June 1725, free 5 Feb. 1739/40.

5. Samuel West, bd 2 Sept. 1729 for 8 years, and again 1 Sept. 1730.

6. Charles Bennett, late apprentice of Richard Harbin, 2 June 1730 turned over for the remainder of his term (Stationers' Company Apprentice Registers, Register of Freeman, and Calendar of Masters and Apprentices 1719-62).

I have not found in the Company records mention of Aris before 1720/1. The last reference to Samuel senior is dated 3 April 1739, when 'Samuel Aris Son of Samuel late of Creed Lane London Printer deceased' was bound 'to Thomas Aris of Red Lyon Court in Fleetstreet London printer', the Consideration of £10 being paid by Samuel Birt.

Thomas Aris's address is earlier given as Jewin St. in bindings 7 Dec. 1731 to 5 Nov. 1734. Thomas Aris's last binding takes place on 3 Feb. 1740/1, which accords well enough with Plomer's statement that Thomas began the Birmingham Gazette, first number 16 November 1741. In his Dictionary 1726-75 Plomer conflates the careers of Samuel senior and junior.

II. Some Octavos Printed by Samuel Aris 1727-32

Attributions have been made on the basis of imprints, two score ornaments and printing-types.

  • 1. 1727. BURNET (Thomas). De fide & officiis Christianorum liber posthumus. Typis S. A., impensis J. Hooke. Bodley (Vet. A4 e.357). Figure 3 on most sheets or formes.
  • 2. 1728. ___ Editio secunda. Typis S. Aris, impensis J. Hooke. Bodley (8° B 454 Linc.). Figure 3 used once on I4v.
  • 3. ___ Archaeologiae philosophicae. Editio secunda. Typis S. Aris, impensis J. Hooke. University of Otago. Figure 1 only in $ 2H-K and 2M.
  • 4. 1730. ___ A treatise concerning the state of departed souls. Trans. J. Dennis. Printed for John Hooke. Bodley (Vet. A4 e. 976). No figures.

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  • 5. ___ WATERLAND (Daniel). Advice to a young student. Printed for John Crownfield. Bodley (G. P. 213). No figures.
  • 6. ___ Remarks upon Doctor Clarke's Exposition of the Church-Catechism. [Device 25 x 38 mm, IMPRIM SAM ARIS] Printed for John Crownfield. Bodley (G. P. 858). No figures.
  • 7. ___ The nature, obligation, and efficacy, of the Christian Sacraments, considered . . . . By the author of the Remarks. Printed by Sam. Aris for John Crownfield. Bodley (G. P. 858). No figures.
  • 8. ___ Supplement to the treatise, intitled, The nature, obligation, and efficacy, of the Christian Sacraments, considered. Printed by Sam. Aris for John Crownfield. Bodley (G.P.46). A1 B-K4. Press-letters: C4v-J, D4v-C, E1v-J, F4v-g(?), H3v-T, 14v-c.
  • 9. 1731. BUDGELL (Eustace). A letter to Cleomenes King of Sparta. Printed for A. Moore. University of Otago no date, Bodley (Vet. A4 e. 1671 dated 1731, and 22863 e. 130 no date); 'second' edition not seen; 'third' edition Bodley (8° A.3.2. Jur.). Frontispiece, A-K8 L4 M2; [B]-[S]8 a-e8 f2. The first set of signatures ending at M were printed by Samuel Richardson — see no. 95 in Wm. M. Sale's Samuel Richardson: Master Printer (1950). The title-page addition of the date constitutes a press-variant. In the tables below only disagreements with the copy in the left hand columns are noted.

[$]  Otago  Bodl.  '1731'  '3rd'  [$]  Otago  Bodl.  '1731'  '3rd' 
(i)  (o)  (i)  (o)  (i)  (o)  (i)  (o)  (i)  (o)  (i)  (o) 

Comments. Another copy (Bodley 22863 e.130, n.d.) has C in sheet a (outer forme), w in c (i), W in e (o), but otherwise agrees with the Otago copy.

All copies appear to be from the same setting of type, though this has not been checked from forme to forme. There may have been basically only the one impression, though the term becomes blurred in meaning with such use. Differing press-letters in twelve sheets may point to reimpression in these cases for reasons possibly unanswerable, or they may be termed, following W. B. Todd, 'variants of uncertain order' within the impression (Bibliography of Edmund Burke, 1964, p. 148). The 'third' edition seems to be in the main a reissue with cancel title of sheets of the first printing. Will other copies of the first edition turn up with the press letters as in sheets H I N Q R a and e? The slight and ambiguous evidence suggests that the term 'third edition' constitutes a puff for a poor seller; on the other hand it might indicate reimpression to cope with a continuing demand. Indecision is embarrassing.


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  • 10. 1731. BUDGELL (Eustace). A letter to His Excellency Mr. Ulrick D'Ypres, Chief Minister to the King of Sparta. Printed for S. West. Bodley (G.P. 796). No figures.
  • 11. 1732. ___ Liberty and property: a pamphlet highly necessary to be read by every Englishman. Printed for W. Mears. Huntington. A 2 B-Y4 Z1. Press-letters: B3-c, C3-J, D4-c, E3-J, F3-j, G2-j, H4-c, I4-j, K3-j, L4v-j, M3v-j, N3-j, O4-j, P4-j, Q4-j, R3-j, S3v-w, T4v-c, U3v-c, X3-w, Y4-w.
  • 12. ___ Liberty and property. Fourth edition. Printed for W. Mears. Bodley (G.P. 360). A 4 (-A1?) B-2A4. Press-letters: A3-l, B4-l, C4-l, D3-j, F3-l, G3v-l, H3-j, I3-l, K1v-l, L3-j, M3v-j, N3-c, O4-j, P3-j, Q3-w, S1-j, T3v-j, U3-w, X2v-c, 2A1v-j; unsigned E R Y Z.
  • 13. ___ The second part of Liberty and property. Printed for W. Mears. Bodley (G.P. 360). A 2 B-G8 x 2; x 2 are advertisements. Press-letters: C3v-l, D7-j, F6-l (?); A B E G unsigned.
  • 14. 1732. BUDGELL (Eustace). Memoirs of the life and character of the late Earl of Orrery, and of the family of the Boyles. Printed for W. Mears. BM (614 g.27 and 614 g.28); 'second' edition Bodley (Vet. A4 e.2273) and BM (G.4352 and 10856 de. 1) — BM copies kindly reported by John Ross. Frontispiece, A4 (a)-(c)4 B-2K4 L2.

BM  BM  Bodl.  BM  BM  BM  Bodl.  BM 
g.27  g.28  2273  4352  g.27  g.28  2273  4352 
W   T   T   2D  w  
2H  -- 

2I-J, 2K-W (none in BM 4352), 2L none, A-w (w in Bodley), (a)-w (w in Bodley), (b) none, (c)-C, (d)-T.

Comments. The letters are placed chiefly on 1v and 4v, less often on 3 and 4, with fewer on 3v, very few on 2v, and only once on 2. Another copy of the 'second' edition (BM 10856 de.1) agrees with BM G.4352 except in sheet M, which has W. All copies appear to be substantially if not entirely from the same setting, though this has not been checked for every forme. Alternation between two letters in twenty-three sheets suggests that for these sheets at least there were two impressions. Those sheets with no change in letter would represent either overprinting (of the last sheets of text and the preliminaries) or reimpression at the same press. Copies of the first and 'second' editions have evidently been


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made up indiscriminately from sheets in these varying states, so that priority of impression is impossible to tell from this evidence alone. Perhaps the publisher increased his original order of copies and puffed dropping sales with a 'second' edition.

15. ___ KING (William). Remains of the late learned and ingenious Dr. William King, some time, advocate of Doctors Commons, Vicar-General to the Archbishop of Armagh, and Record-Keeper of Ireland. Printed for W. Mears. University of Otago. A 4 B-Y4; 2B-2Y4. Press-letters (in first series of signatures only): B3-p, C4-J, D3-p, E3-W, F2v-W, G3v-J, H3-W, K4-p, L3-p, N3v-p, O4v-J, P3v-w, Q3-p, R3-P, T4v-p, U4v-w, X2v-w, none in I, M, S, Y. The second set of signatures, obviously from a different press, has no press-letters or figures. The first section has no ornaments and cannot certainly be attributed to Aris.



The first part, comprising the Introduction and distinguished by a separate set of signatures, was printed by Richardson — see Wm. M. Sale jr, Samuel Richardson: Master Printer (1950), item 95.


D. F. McKenzie, The Cambridge University Press 1696-1712 (1966), I, 131.


Grolier Club accession number 19472, on loan to the Bodleian Library, Oxford. This is a compositors' and pressmen's check-book running 1730-39. The Bibliographical Society (London) proposes to publish facsimiles of this and other Bowyer printing ledgers, edited by the present writer.


Strahan to David Hall 15 June 1771, quoted R. A. Austen-Leigh, 'William Strahan and his ledgers', The Library, 4th series, III (1923), 272.


'William Somervile's "The Chace," 1735', PBSA LVIII (1964), 1-7, and see G. T. Tanselle, 'The Recording of Press Figures', The Library, 5th series, XXI (1966), 322.


Tanselle, op.cit., p. 325. For one such work by Baskett see under 1725 in K. Povey, 'Working to rule, 1600-1800: a study of pressmen's practice', The Library, 5th series, XX (1965), 39.


Fredson Bowers, Bibliography and Textual Criticism (1964), pp. 71 ff.