14 April 2004

Women Set Type!

Being a historical account of women in printing, publishing, and typographical compositing in these United States of America and Western Europe.

The text below is assembled from Unseen Hands, Women Printers, Binders & Book Designers (Princeton University Library, 2003), Women in Printing & Publishing in California, 1850-1940 (California Historical Society, 1998), and Epochal History of the International Typographical Union (I.T.U., 1925.) Other sources are indicated where used.

“Women have been involved in printing and the making of books ever since these crafts were first developed. Even before the advent of movable type, there was a strong tradition of women producing manuscripts in western European religious houses. In the Convent of San Jacopo di Ripoli in Florence, we find the first documented evidence, in 1476, of women working as printers. Girls and women were often trained by their fathers or husbands to assist in printing businesses, and there are many instances from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries of women taking over and managing these enterprises upon the early demise of their male relatives.... Many, certainly, only managed the business, while others were more directly involved. Estellina, wife of the printer Abraham Conant, proudly stated in a Hebrew book, Behinat `olam (Mantua, ca. 1477) that ‘she, together with one man, did the typesetting.’ [source]

In the 19th century, a limited number of occupations were open to women — teaching, needlework, domestic service, etc. Male-only unions ruled the printing business. Women, where employed at all, were relegated to certain low-paying jobs considered best suited for the weaker sex, such as dressing (polishing imperfections) from metal type, folding printed sheets, and sewing bindings. Yet there were exceptions — a few women were also employed in typesetting. Women who were widows or daughters of printers often learned typesetting out of necessity.

James Franklin, brother of Benjamin Franklin, taught something of the art to his two daughters prior to his death in 1835, and when he died he left his printing plan at Newport, R.I. to his widow and family. They operated it successfully for many years.

A woman’s typographical union was formed in France with a journal entitled La Compositrice, and the first major woman’s journal edited by a woman, Godey’s Lady’s Book, was published in Philadelphia from 1830-1858, edited by Sarah Josepha Buell Hale. [source]


Women were employed in the Day Book office in New York in 1853, while a strike was in progress against that office. This inspired a determined campaign against women printers. Union leaders inveighed against employment of women and urged the National Typographical Union to do something about it. The National wisely disclaimed any desire to interfere in treatment of the issue by local unions. Horace Greely, celebrated editor of the New York Tribune and a former president of Typographical Union No. 6 of New York, took up his redoubtable pen....

‘Your fears that women will supplant you, or seriously reduce your wages, Messrs. Compositors, are neither wise nor manly. The girls who marry and have families to look after will stop setting type — never doubt that — unless they are so luckless as to get drunken, loafing, good-for-nothing husbands, who will do nothing to keep the pot boiling, and then they must work, and you ought not to be mean enough to stop them, or drive them back to making shirts or binding shoes at three or four shillings a day.

If you find yourselves troubled with too strong a competition from female workers just prove yourselves worthy to be their husbands; marry them, provide good homes and earn the means of living comfortably, and we’ll warrant them never to annoy you thereafter by insisting on spending their days at the printing office setting type. But waxing theologic and pious, you tell us of the sphere of action God designed women to occupy —of her ‘purity’ and of the ‘immorality and vice’ she must inevitably sink into, should she be admitted into the composing room to set type beside you. We feel the force of these suggestions — we admit the badness of the company into which unregulated typesetting would sometimes thro her — but did it ever occur to you that this is her lookout rather than yours? It is perfectly fair of you to apprise her beforehand of the moral atmosphere to which promiscuous typesetting would expose her, but when you virtually say she shan’t set type because if she did your society and conversation would corrupt her you carry the joke a little too far.’

By 1864, due in large part to the depletion of the male work force during the Civil War, additional workers were needed in trades which were previously thought of as ‘male’ trades — one of these being typesetting. The number of newspapers and the demand for printed materials was on the increase, and women began to step into jobs in both the printing and publishing fields.

The National Typographical Union permitted women to form unions and to join existing unions in 1869, the same year it was renamed the International Typographical Union. Augusta Lewis Troup, journalist and typesetter for Susan B. Anthony’s newspaper The Revolution, was elected corresponding secretary of the International Typographical Union in 1870. She became the first woman to hold any national union office. [source]


Women Set Type!After hearing of the role of women in the 15th century printing industry, Emily Faithful decided to set up her own firm in Edinburgh in 1857 employing women only. In 1859 she founded the Victoria Press in London and employed men to do the heavy work. This met with a lot of hostility with the print unions which said that it encouraged immorality. In 1862 she earned the title of Printer and Publisher in Ordinary to the Queen, moved to an office in Farringdon Street and then to Praed Street, Paddington, where she remained until 1881. She was also a writer and poet and was involved in some of the publications produced by her firm such as the feminist English Woman’s Journal and the Victoria Magazine. [source] While her journal was established as a general literary magazine it provided a strong feminist emphasis on suffrage, married women’s property, education, employment and all of the other feminist/women’s concerns of the day. [source]

During the late 19th century, women writers often moved into positions as editors of newspapers or small journals. At this same time, the Woman’s Suffrage Movement was gaining momentum and the women-edited journals were the obvious choices in which to further their cause. Spiritualism was also a popular movement at the turn of the century among women — largely because it did not discriminate by gender or ethnic background — and the women publishers felt a kinship because of this non-discriminatory nature. Journals such as The Carrier Dove, The Spiritualist, and The Golden Dawn were all journals edited by women and devoted to not only Spiritualism but in some cases, also to the Suffrage Movement.

Other women publishers and editors followed a more literary angle, publishing journals which featured articles on a wider variety of topics. In 1863, Lisle Lester took charge of the Pacific Monthly, a woman’s literary magazine previously known as the Hesperian. It had a rocky career as was the career of Ms. Lester — who was widely known for her strong opinions on many topics and her tussles with the male typographical unions. Another woman, Emily Pitts Stevens, gained prominence when she transformed the Sunday Evening Mercury — which was known as ‘a Journal of Romance and Literature’ — into the premier voice for woman’s suffrage in the West. She hired women to set type for her newspaper and in 1869 changed its name to The Pioneer — as ‘a name that more nearly covers our thought and tells the nature of our object and ambition.’ She became a major force in the founding of the California Woman Suffrage Association on January 28, 1870.


Women's Printing CooperativeIn San Francisco, which was becoming a center for printing and publishing in the West, women-run printing offices appeared in the 1870s and 1880s. The Women’s Union Job Printing Co., the Woman’s Publishing Company, Amanda B. Slocum and Jennie Patrick were a few either woman-run and/or -staffed printing offices of this period. The most prominent and prolific was The Women’s Co-Operative Printing Union, established in 1868 on Clay Street by Mrs. Agnes Peterson, followed in 1873 by Mrs. Lizzie G. Richmond. Early 1870 billheads produced by the WCPU proudly proclaimed, ‘Women set type! Women run presses!’ So confident was Lizzie Richmond that her billheads and advertisements often stated, ’We invite criticism.’ These printing offices produced a variety of printed materials for the public — books, commercial catalogs, corporate annual reports, legal briefs, [as well as] invitations, broadside advertisements, and handbills.

The many journals, newspapers, books, and even billheads that were printed during the late 19th and early 20th centuries used mainly one method of illustration — that of the wood engraving.... Leila S. Curtis and Eleanor P. Gibbons were two women who started up and ran successful engraving businesses in San Francisco. Both were trained in engraving and design. Their designs were found on billheads, business cards, and stationery, as well as in book illustrations, commercial catalogs, and innumerable other small printed items. Magazines published during this period often used the technique of the woodcut — rather than a wood engraving — to illustrate their pages. The technique used in producing a woodcut allowed for larger more fluid compositions. Lucia Mathews cut the designs for Philopolis (1906-1919) — a magazine published by Arthur, her husband, and herself during the early part of the 20th century. Florence Lundborg, an artist influenced by both Art Nouveau and the Arts and Crafts movement of the early part of this century, produced woodcut images for The Lark, the San Francisco literary magazine published by Bruce Porter and Gelett Burgess from 1895-1897. [source]


The turn of the century saw an increased interest in the aesthetic aspects of printing — now that women were an accepted part of the work force — and many fine presses sprang up throughout the state [of California]. A fine or ‘private press’ is generally understood to be a small printing house which issues for public sale limited editions of books which have been carefully made on the premises.

By the 1920s a tradition of fine printing was well under way in San Francisco, with Taylor and Taylor, John Henry Nash and the Grabhorns already fairly well established. These printing houses encouraged printing by women.... Other women with their own presses were Rosalind Keep of the Eucalyptus Press, Helen Gentry, and Jane Grabhorn at Colt Press, which was founded along with William Matson Roth and Jane Swinerton. In southern California, private presses were often a husband and wife team. The Saunders Studio Press of Claremont was founded in 1927 by Lynne and Ruth Thompson Saunders. The Plantin Press in Los Angeles was established in 1931 by Saul and Lillian Marks, Saul being in charge of design and layout and Lillian responsible for composition. Women such as Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Yeats also founded private presses that produced handsome limited editions of the work of contemporary authors and artists. [source]

Women were notably successful at bookbinding, both ‘on the line’ — producing factory bindings — and in the creation of splendid examples of hand binding, particularly during the Arts and Crafts Revival of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

With the dawn of the 20th century and the emergence of women’s rights, women in printing and publishing entered more seamlessly into the work force. Finally, with the advent of fine press printing, the women printers in the 1920s and 1930s emerge as figures who achieved their goals to work at a skilled occupation that offered them not only an honest living but also a chance to use their creative instincts and skills.”