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Ink, stink, and sweetmeats

By Simon Eliot

All powered printing machines needed an effective means of inking type at speed. In most cases this was done by the use of rollers. The earliest prototypes had been covered with leather but, as a sheet of leather had to be joined to create covering for a cylinder, there was always a sewn seam that did not distribute the ink evenly. By 1814 this problem had been overcome by rollers covered in a ‘composition’ consisting usually of glue, molasses and some carbonate of soda. This created a seamless surface that distributed ink evenly and then provided the main inking system for powered printing machines, until replaced later by rollers made of rubber or synthetic materials. Composite inking rollers for hand inking had been introduced into the Press by 1819, some years before powered printing machines. No doubt the pressmen would have been grateful for their relatively quick adoption not only because they made inking type easier but also because the ink balls which they superseded tended to stink. One writer who had experience of their manufacture described it as one of the ‘nastiest processes imaginable, which converted the room into a stinking cloaca.’ This was no exaggeration, as traditionally the ink balls were soaked in urine overnight to soften the leather.

Composition kettle
A kettle used for making “composition”, a mixture of glue and molasses or treacle and later glycerin, which was poured out to make rollers for inking type in letterpress printing.

Later the Press began to manufacture its own rollers which were cast in the ‘Inking Roller Manufactory’ located next to the Stereotype Foundry in the Walton Street printing works. This fact explains a rather Lewis Carroll-like list of items contained in a Bible side trade ledger. On 20 March 1851 it recorded ‘Best Golden Syrup a puncheon 11.10.4’ and another puncheon of golden syrup bought for £8.6.2 in the following October. In January 1856 the Press bought 5 cwt of glue, and ordered another 5 cwt in August of the same year. As late as 1885 there was still a roller making room on the Bible Side with fixtures and fittings worth an estimated £498. This room was sought out by apprentices in search of a treat, of sorts:

‘My duties as an errand-boy took me to all parts of the Bible Side buildings but very rarely to the Learned Side, which was still a thing apart and rather sparsely inhabited. My journeys to the machine-room with proofs led to my discovery of the roller-making room, where it was possible by making a polite request to receive a piece of the trimmings of a new roller. This was made chiefly, I believe, of treacle and glue, and was considered quite good enough to eat when other sweetmeats failed.’

Simon Eliot is Professor of the History of the Book in the Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London. He is general editor of The History of Oxford University Press, and editor of its Volume II 1780-1896.

With access to extensive archives, The History of Oxford University Press is the first complete scholarly history of the Press, detailing its organization, publications, trade, and international development. Read previous blog posts about the history of Oxford University Press.

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Image credit: Derived from an illustration on page 43 of Oscar H. Harpel’s Harpel’s Typograph. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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