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The study of books from the machine-press period also benefits from regarding format in terms of type as well as paper. Indeed, a focus on paper tests for format caused even so perspicacious a bibliographer as Henry Bradshaw to believe that the traditional format terms were “wholly inapplicable” to modern books.[43] It is true that in many instances the paper offers no help whatever; but there is still a possibility of determining format through typographical evidence. The extreme situation that dramatizes the point (a common situation, in fact, after the 1860s) is the production of printed matter on a web-fed rotary press, which takes paper in the form of a roll rather than individual sheets. If format is defined simply in terms of the folding of sheets of paper, then the concept is not appropriate for books and newspapers printed on web-fed presses. But it makes no sense to say that these items have no format, or to adopt a definition of format that is not applicable to all printed material, since obviously there was some finite number of page-units on the press at one time, and that number had a direct bearing on the structure of the item as finally produced. One could say, in other words, that the sheets to be folded were cut from the roll of paper after printing, their size having been determined by the area of printing surface on the press.[44] These items do, therefore, have a format in the most meaningful sense of that term, whether or not one is able to identify it in a given instance. And any attempt to establish it must focus on an effort to reconstruct the type-forme, since in these cases the forme may be the sole determinant of format.

Difficulties in determining the formats of machine-press books are


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not, however, limited to items printed on web-fed presses. From the second quarter of the nineteenth century onward, the mechanization of the paper and printing industries allowed the production of much larger paper than was possible previously and also provided presses that could exert the requisite pressure over large enough areas to print on these large sheets. Thus in examining nineteenth- and twentieth-century books one always has reason to suspect that they were printed from formes containing the type-pages for several gatherings in the finished product. Many books gathered in eights, for example, were printed from formes of sixty-four pages, each of these large formes containing the outer or inner formes of eight eight-leaf gatherings (or, alternatively and perhaps more commonly, containing all the pages for four eight-leaf gatherings, imposed to be perfected end-for-end so that each sheet resulted in two copies of each of the four gatherings).[45] The fact that the number of leaves in a gathering does not in itself reveal the number of pages in the forme (and therefore, given the observed dimensions of the leaves, the size of the sheet) does not, of course, distinguish the task of analyzing machine-press books from that of hand-press ones. The most significant difference is that machine-made paper has fewer readily visible characteristics of potential usefulness, since it generally shows no discernible pattern when held up to the light, and if chainlines and watermarks are present they have no integral connection with the manufacturing process but are simply optional embellishments.[46]

It follows that the principal piece of paper evidence available for machine-printed books (and indeed for those earlier ones, largely from the late eighteenth-century, printed on wove, unwatermarked paper) is the leaf-edges of untrimmed or partially untrimmed copies. Even if the outer-edge folds have been slit, those edges can still often be distinguished (by their matching roughness) from the leaf-edges that coincide with the original edges of the sheet (or with the edges of the roll and the machine-cuts across the roll), and the patterns discovered in a study of leaf-edges can sometimes reveal the imposition scheme used.[47] Useful typographical evidence can also at times be uncovered. The fact that in cylinder-press operation the leading edge of a forme receives the most stress and the following (or “trailing”) edge the next most (with the side


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edges somewhat less and the internal page-edges very little) can enable one by studying plate damage to determine the imposition that would have led to it.[48] And sometimes multi-page resetting to correct damage to the edge of a forme can indicate some of the type-pages that were adjacent.[49] Reappearances of distinctively damaged ornaments or ornamented types can—as in books from earlier periods—help to show which pages could not be on the press at the same time.[50] The rare survival of plate-gang numbers can lead to the determination of imposition schemes;[51] and occasionally in paperback “two-up” printing, if the cutting is not done precisely, one may be able to see on any given page a line or two of text from the page (of another book) imposed above or below it.[52]

If, after trying such approaches as these, and others that will inevitably be developed as more investigation is made of nineteenth- and twentieth-century books, one still cannot in a given instance state with confidence the number of type-pages on the press at one time, one must clearly be content to give the structure of a book only in terms of the number of leaves per gathering. As Bowers said in his treatment of format for machine-printed books, “If the format is not known, it is omitted” (p. 429). Although this advice may sound too obvious to require stating, Bowers's purpose in giving it was to emphasize, first, that one should not regard the number of leaves per gathering as an indication of format and, second, that one should not adopt publishers' occasional practice of using format terms as vague indications of size. Since the collation formula makes clear the number of leaves in each gathering, there is no point, as he says, in substituting an expression like “in 8s” or “in 12s” for the format statement; one could, as he suggests (p.


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430), give the dimensions of a typical leaf instead, though he rightly adds that this information might just as well be placed in the paragraph on paper.

Bowers's handling of this matter is sounder than Gaskell's. In the main treatment of format in the New Introduction, Gaskell wrote:

We shall see later that books of the machine-press period were commonly printed from multiple impositions on large sheets of paper which were then cut up for folding into ordinary gatherings. For such books a format statement such as “crown octavo” does not necessarily indicate either the imposition scheme or the size of the large sheets; what it does indicate—properly used—is that the size of the sub-units of the sheets used for the gatherings was crown, and that the sub-units were folded octavo-fashion into gatherings of eight leaves.

(pp. 80-81)

It is surprising that Gaskell would sanction the use of expressions like “crown octavo” to mean something different for machine-printed books from what they mean when applied to hand-printed books. His suggestion amounts to saying that “format” for machine-printed books refers neither to paper nor type but only to the characteristics of the folded gatherings (leaf size and number of leaves). But such a signification for “format” is precisely what he—like other bibliographers—warns against for hand-printed books. It is not conducive to clarity to allow “format” (or any other term) to shift so drastically in meaning according to the equipment employed to produce the book being described. Besides, not every book produced on a machine-press was printed on large paper: it is perfectly possible for a nineteenth- or twentieth-century book gathered in eight-leaf sections actually to be an octavo in the traditional sense. The concept of format, if it is to be informative rather than confusing, must clearly remain constant as it is applied to books of different periods.