Printing Techniques Through the Victorian Age

 Printing techniques up until the Victorian age were mainly based around the use of individual font families arranged in a case & pressed straight to the page. Lithography introduced the process of engraving or etching an image onto first a stone surface & later onto brass & steelUncle_Sam_Supplying_the_World_with_Berry_Brothers_Hard_Oil_Finish


Tow examples of lithography — left: The Great Eastern by Robert Dudley (1866). Right: The Grindstone, an illustration for Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities by Harry Furniss. 1910 [Click on these images for larger pictures.]

The Victorian World of Printing

The first printing presses were set up in Germany in the Fifteenth Century. From then until the mid-Eighteenth Century there were two main types of printing that were developed – relief and intaglio. Printing by moveable typeface falls to relief printing, copper engraving and etching (along with a later development of mezzotint) fall to intaglio printing and give a better finish.

Amongst these, copper plate was replaced by steel engraving (driven by security printing, i.e. bank notes and etc.) and wood cut was replaced by wood-engraving. With relief printing the ink is on the raised image and transferred to paper under pressure. With intaglio printing the raised surface is wiped clean leaving the ink in the hollows of the image to be forced out onto paper under pressure. Hand tinting, a labour intensive process, allowed colour to be added to pictures.Metal letterpresses began to replace wooden ones from the turn of the century.

Lithography and photography, however, were the two developments to have most impact on printing. Lithography is a mechanical planographic process (printing from a flat surface, or plane), in which the printing and non-printing areas of the plate are all at the same level. Water absorbing limestone slabs were cut and made totally smooth for the designs to be drawn on them. The design areas were then marked with greasy ink and the remaining areas were treated with gum arabic and well moistened with water. The ink would be applied with a roller but only adhere to the greasy ink, being repelled elsewhere by the water. The image would then be transferred to paper pressed onto the stone.

As the Nineteenth Century wore on the versatility of lithography was realised – images could be printed in one of the other methods, such as mezzotint, and transferred onto the stone producing equally good result more easily. The process also allowed text to be reproduced and not just in straight lines but in curves.

Chromolithography was one of three colour printing techniques developed during the first half of the Nineteenth Century. That versatility soon allowed it to outstrip its rivals whose methods were based upon wood blocks and wood engravings.

The lithographer, just like the engraver, would need to be skilled to reproduce faithfully the picture entrusted to him.


Plates would be prepared according to the number of basic colours to be applied. Light colours would be applied first. The image on each plate would need to be perfect in order not to end up with a blurred final print from overlapping colours. This was no mean feat given one plate for each colour with around 10 colours to be applied as the usual.

Typefaces that were movable created a revolution that made printing easy. Early type face was cut from wood, metal type was to come later. It was particularly advertising in the first two decades of the Nineteenth Century that drove type founders to produce a wider range of typefaces (and larger size, departing from the smaller sizes associated with book printing) following styles of lettering found in sign writers work. These were used mainly on posters and handbills by jobbing printers (these were small concerns often consisting only of the master printer and his assistant, book printers were larger). In the first half of the Century British foundries led the way in creating new types and there was a positive explosion. As a result printers over-indulged and created things in what many now comment on as being an over-crowded and cluttered style.


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