The Happənstance of Early Modern Printing and Print Culture
The creation, production, dissemination, and preservation of broadside ballads in the seventeenth century each were significantly affected by uncontrolled happenstance. As mass-marketed ephemera, sold on the streets, in printers’ or publishers’ shops and stalls, and in various public places by itinerant chapmen, broadside ballads were subject to unpredictable consumption and preservation. Marketing mistakes as well as happy coincidences often influenced how or whether a particular printed ballad survived. Indeed, the fundamental character of a ballad was often determined by happenstance as it was re-transmitted through copying, a process that would inevitably introduce variations. Even without transmission errors, happenstance during the printing process would often determine the ballad's final form. When setting type, carving woodblocks, and running them through the press, we regularly witnessed the force of “contingency” that, according to Adrian Johns, characterizes printing practice. “Any printed book,” Johns posits, “is both the product of one complex set of social and technological processes and also the starting point for another . . . a large number of people, machines, and materials must converge and act together for it to come into existence at all (2). In the case of the broadside ballads, the proliferation of agents increases the number of chance occurrences and mistakes that characterize their production. And while Johns explores the history of high-end scientific books, happenstance played a larger role in the printing of popular broadside ballads for two reasons. As cheap single-sheets, ballads were set and run off in haste, and as multi-media artifacts, they consisted of multiple, independently-composed parts. Each of these parts was then subject to the inconsistencies of the printing press, which introduced accidents and mishaps of its own. Examining the occasions for happenstance in the production of a broadside ballad, we can come to recognize that contingency is a powerful force in print culture more generally. Moving from the typesetting, to the printing, to the finished product, we can chart the impact of chance occurrences at all stages of ballad production.
In this essay, I expand upon Patricia Fumerton's discussion of the public dissemination and reception of broadside ballads in her article “Remembering by Dismembering: Databases, Archiving, and the Recollection of Seventeenth-Century Broadside Ballads”; I also address an earlier step in the cultural process. Fumerton argues there that the fragmentation of data in the modern world, which many scholars have seen as the hallmark of modernity, is in fact a characteristic of early modern print culture. After asking whether information fragmentation is fundamentally “modern,” Fumerton ultimately claims that that in “both the early modern period—in its experiencing of what one might call the ‘passing present’—and in the modern period as it re-collects early modern print culture—in its accessing of the ‘distant past’—there has always been an ongoing process of remembering by dismembering in which fragmentation plays a key role” (2). Fumerton’s analysis picks up on such concepts as the similarity of contemporary computer “hits” to early modern mental ballad groupings and to the ultimately (and ironically) disjointed attempts, specifically by Samuel Pepys, to maintain a unified ballad collection. In such a comparative analysis, she further shows that fragmentation has been an unavoidable part of ballad culture since the early modern period despite attempts to resist it. Contemporary collections such as UC Santa Barbara’s English Broadside Ballad Archive (EBBA) work to organize, categorize, and make available online to the public all extant ballads. But as Fumerton notes, not only is the cataloguing of such ballads fraught with inconsistencies and errors, but also the modern system of searching for ballads and retrieving “hits” can be influenced by happenstance as much as when a seventeenth-century individual happened to walk down one street instead of another, and came face to face with one ballad instead of its cousin.
Happenstance in the early modern dissemination of the broadside ballad would have affected multiple human senses simply because the broadside ballad was a multisensory, multimedia affair. As Eric Nebeker explains, if you would walk “the streets of London,” you
would see the sheets held up by ballad mongers, with heavily inked black-letter type, waiting to be bought. But you would not just see broadside ballads on walls or in hands, you would also hear them. They were sung in groups in the alehouse, sung individually by a ballad monger, sung at work by apprentice and master, sung in the fields by milkmaids and farmers. Printed with the names of familiar tunes to which they could be sung, broadside ballads were more than art, more than text, and more than song. (np)
From Nebeker’s imagined recreation of “happening” upon broadside ballads, one realizes that a ballad can equal more than the sum of its parts; by being “more than” art, text, or song, the ballad itself becomes a unique creation affecting different senses depending on the form of its iteration. Fumerton’s argument is useful to consider when we deal with “making,” particularly when we apply it to processes of typesetting and printing. As this essay illustrates, fragmentation and multiple instances of happenstance characterize the process that leads to the finished, “whole” product, well before it becomes “dismembered” in its varied and often partial sensory receptions on the streets or in the countryside of early modern England. While Fumerton is interested in the relationship between contingency and consumption, I am interested in the relationship between contingency and production. Just as chance determined which ballads were bought, consumed, and preserved, so chance determined, in large part, the character of the objects sold. Here, I am interested specifically in error, and in the way that the printing house and the laborers in the printing house left their marks on the ballads we have today.
My exploration of happenstance in the printing process is possible thanks to our “Making of a Broadside Ballad” team’s experience at the University of California, Riverside’s printing lab, under the guidance of printing and preservation specialist Sara A. Stilley. Bringing in our original ballad and our own hand-carved woodcuts, we printed our ballad. The following five-minute clip details the steps in the printing process:
When setting type for our ballad, we drew type from a “California Job Case.” The California Job Case is different from early modern cases because it holds both “uppercase” and “lowercase” letters on a single plane where early modern printers would have worked from a proper upper and lower case.
When setting type, happenstance plays a role before the typesetter even begins her work because she works from a case that might be filled with mixed-up type. The type case, as seen above, evokes comparisons to the contemporary computer keyboard, itself linked to its predecessor, the typewriter, but the type case lacks the regularity of these machines. The type case combines flexibility with fixity: various pieces of movable type are regularly drawn from and replaced in a specific spot or “sort” in the case. Because so many pieces of type would be used in a given printing house, and because pieces of type are small and slippery, a misplaced piece is almost guaranteed. A numeral “0” might find its way to the sort of the uppercase “O,” or a lowercase “b” might fall into the sort of a lowercase “j,” simply because they are neighbors in the case. Every letter picked must eventually be returned, and the typesetter moves across sorts, each gaping open and waiting to swallow up letters that do not belong, leading to a great potential for dropping a letter into the wrong sort. Type that “falls” into misplacement is known as being “out of sorts”; a common occurrence in the printing house that has become a common expression today.
While striking the wrong key on a computer keyboard might have the same end-result, the wrong letter instantly appears on the screen and is easily corrected without making the typist emotionally out of sorts. But with a type case, the wrong letter in the wrong sort might go unnoticed until the next typesetter picks it up and either catches the error, or fails to notice and perpetuates the mistake. We experienced this blunder a number of times, as when we placed the numeral 0 instead of the capital letter “O” in the word “Oh,” because the 0 was in the O sort. To help keep the type in sort, the uppercase letters were placed in the top boxes of the case and the lower case ones in the bottom boxes (hence “uppercase” and “lowercase”). As mentioned earlier, however, we worked from a “California Case,” which placed lowercase type on the left and uppercase on the right, with numbers, ligatures, and punctuation sorts running mostly along the top. This setup was an improvement over early modern cases, perhaps, because it made type more readily accessible, but such ordering and concern for the typesetter’s ease also makes it easier to mis-sort type. The type case, despite our efforts to keep it well-organized, constantly marred our ballad.
When picking type and assembling it on the composing stick , the “stance” of the typesetter’s body and mind open the door to further potential error. Colton Saylor notes that the typesetter’s stance illustrates the collaboration between the human and the machine, and indeed the typesetting process works most smoothly when the typesetter's body moves mechanically. Like sitting at a desk to type out a document on a computer’s word processing program, setting type on a composing stick calls for an upright, stable torso that allows free movement of the hand and arm. Standing firmly upright, the compositor reaches out with one hand and plucks letters, to return them to the still hand and arm that cradle the composing stick. The pieces of type come together as the typesetter’s body plucks and sets, plucks and sets, in a process that stabilizes as much as it disrupts: every plucked letter now bears the potential for being mislaid on the stick, just as every letter on its journey back to its case bears the potential for misplacement once the process is over. When setting type, compositors are less likely to make errors if they consider the words being set rather than simply focusing on the individual letters. The mental stance that the typesetter takes in regard to making whole, meaningful words is as important as the physical stance she takes in trying to prevent mis-picked type. The reminder to think of words, not letters is a safeguard against losing one’s place in setting the type, an error that could cause one to elide letters, forget spacers, or – worst of all – forget whole words. A missing letter or leading spacer can be tricky to reinsert, but with careful finagling it can be done without a terrible amount of effort. A missing word might require a complete dismantling of the composing stick, a time wasting but necessary step; this is one error that usually cannot be overlooked or forgiven in high-end printing, though many a compositor of cheap print was evidently more forgiving.
Thus, as much as the typesetter might want to fall into a routine that is so comfortable that she feels at ease, the close quarters of the composing stick on which each line is set and the difficulty of making major corrections at this early stage of the whole process necessitates full concentration. A balance must be drawn between comfortable ease – a compositor is largely on her feet – and rigorous focus to ensure that every letter and every word appears in the stick. A compositor must focus on the minutiae of type, that is, while also having a good sense of the semantic context in which each word is set.
The possibility for error during this process is so significant that typesetting races in nineteenth-century America provided occasions for typesetters to demonstrate technical and aesthetic virtuosity. Walker Rumble details the rivalries and competitions in his article “From the Shop Floor to the Show: Joseph W. McCann, Typesetting Races, and Expressive Work in Nineteenth-Century America,” where he notes that before the invention and popularization of Linotype presses (which no longer required type be set letter-by-letter), “every composition room and print shop in the country was producing a local ‘speedburner,’ a typesetter who laid claim to being the fastest in the land, if not the world” (2). Rumble chronicles the growth of type-racing, noting that victory was usually granted to the typesetter who both set the most type and had the cleanest proof at the end, proving these races a combination of speed and vigilance. Although our experience at UC Riverside lacked the incentives of prize money and fame, we too felt the pressure of time at our backs (library hours!) as we set the type and worked the presses. The notion that one could create a competition around setting type speaks to the blend of skill and sheer chance at play in the process. Even without the “official” races that Rumble details, the pressures the typesetter would feel during the typesetting process make her job something of a race in slow motion, with the need to move as quickly as possible coupled with the time wasted if her haste results in mistakes such as missed words.
This sense of deliberate haste continues in the next step of the process, when the composing stick – having been loaded with type and secured – is transported to the bed of the press; the process provides new opportunities for disruption. The letters, secured by spacers on either end of the lines, are especially prone at this stage to spilling and fidgeting; as the composing stick is laid down in the bed of the printing press, letters may also become slightly – and invisibly – raised, which causes problems when taking impressions. Unlike a nail that sticks up and gets hammered down, the type that sticks up wipes out its bedside fellows when the platen gets lowered onto the paper for the first press.
We had tamped the type down as it lay on the bed before printing, using a wooden tool called a tamper, to attempt to make the type height uniform. But the tamping process is often inadequate and produces uneven results, because the printer must tamp lightly to avoid damaging the soft type. Type still stood up slightly in places, leading to wipeouts as shown above.
Just as tamping was largely ineffective, the pressure of the press was unable to secure all type at an even height. When we began to print our ballad, we started with a replica of the eighteenth-century Franklin press before moving to a mid-nineteenth-century Seggie Edinburgh press after noticing a warp in the bed of the earlier press. Both are common pull presses, the former made of wood and the latter of iron. Such presses are reasonably sensitive, but the sheer delicacy of the type means that the presses must be adjusted in small increments for every typeset. This fragility means that printers cannot force type into place with pressure from the press, unless they are willing to damage the lead type in the process. Consequently, finding raised type is a time-consuming process: the raised type is only visible after printing, once one sees which type seems over-inked and which type is invisible, living in the shadow of its taller neighbor. In our case, due to the haste with which we ended up printing our sheets (despite nine people spending one and a half days setting the type and adjusting the press for printing), we produced an uneven printing of our broadside ballad. Many of the raised letters that wiped out adjacent letters likely occurred when the type was moved from the Franklin to the Seggie press, as the type loosened and an entire stanza fell over during this process. We only had time to try to catch our errors from our printing efforts made on the Franklin press. By the time we had the Seggie press printing most of the woodblocks and metal type, we had no time to do a second close check of the final product, but instead had to print and run. Raised and inverted letters were later fixed by Sara Stilley, our guide to using the presses.
Trial and error, then, is a necessary part of the printing process because errors only become visible once one has tried to print a document. Consequently, extant printed documents exist in various states, as printers correct as they proceed or, aggravatingly, introduce more errors to be corrected subsequently, once a document has been proofed at a later stage. Furthermore, a mistake such as raised letters illustrates the bond between human and machine that can be alternately productive and destructive, as the same hands and arms that place the type can brush up against individual letters, cajoling them higher in the forme so that they blot out a whole word or more during the next step of the printing process. Once the press itself enters the fray, the printing process quite simply becomes a more complicated procedure, as the press itself operates idiosyncratically and imperfectly, introducing errata. The printing process is subject to chance in part because of the number of people required to set up and work a press, a collection of workers that would have operated as a household in the sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries. As Kris McAbee and Jessica Murphy point out in their essay “Ballad Creation and Circulation: Congers and Mongers,” such a household was visible at the nominal level of ballad creation, partly due to the naming structure that deemed a print business to be a “printing house.” McAbee and Murphy elaborate on this name, noting that “[p]rinting houses were run by the print master, often called ‘father,’ and required a veritable ‘family’ of workers.” One set of workers was the compositors, who filled the composing sticks and then loaded the “galley,” or the tray onto which the type was moved, worked with the type but did not interact with the press beyond unloading the letters. Making up the rest of the family were the “pressmen, who often worked in pairs because the forme, which held all of the galleys for a given printing, was very heavy, and a lot of force was required to press the ink onto the paper; and proofreaders, who made corrections as the sheets came off the presses.” The specialized roles that these individuals performed speak to the very particularized set of tasks and skills that each step of the process would require; it also suggests that many hands were involved in the production of a broadside ballad, each able to introduce errors.
The interplay of humans and machines, however, meant that even the most prepared printers could not always account for contingencies at play during the printing process. Apart from type and typesetting errors, the woodcuts featuring illustrations also introduce the opportunity for error because they are moving parts in a machine that requires stability to work well. Two specific features of woodcuts lead to printing mistakes. First, the piece of wood itself is often a source of trouble: small and either square or rectangular, the wood block is prone to warping over time as it dries out and grows moist in different environments, expanding and contracting and transforming the fibrous bonds that hold it together. Or the wood might not have been even to begin with: cut poorly, a block might rise too high and block the inking of adjacent letters or images, or it might sit too low and remain un-pressed. Should the wood swell or otherwise warp, or should the wood be poorly cut, the ballad will be misprint. As seen below, we faced this problem when we dealt with a wood block that was very slightly mis-cut:
Woodblocks also pose problems when they are set in the press at the same time as the type. We followed this protocol, though there is no evidence as to whether or not type and images were set on a press simultaneously in the sixteenth or early-seventeenth century. The key problem with simultaneous printing of woodcuts and type is that woodcuts are unpredictable heights, in part because they would usually be re-used. We had trouble with our new woodcuts – they were both too high and too low – and early modern printers would have encountered even more problems in printing woodcuts. Because woodcuts undergo a good amount of wear and tear, a woodcut’s carved lines might become clogged with ink, or the lines might warp or collapse and fail to print properly. As Simone Chess argues, the blemishes and warping of woodcuts is so inevitable that that modern historians of early modern broadside ballads can rely on seeing signs of wear:
Not only were woodcuts traded and shared, but they were also copied for reuse by an original owner or an imitative competitor. This reuse could span centuries: sixteenth-century broadsheet blocks show up in eighteenth-century prints, evidence of the reuse of extant woodcuts in printing shops. Whether copies or originals, many woodcuts were used until they wore down, becoming faded, warped, or cracked. These changes in a single woodcut sometimes allow readers to follow one print’s appearance through a succession of ballads, and can also help to date the ballads on which it appears. Over time, certain woodcuts became stock images, and might even have started to carry their own subtle meanings or implications. (np)
Here we can see how the flaws of the woodcuts, combined with the printing errors they have the potential to produce, help us to actually “de-fragment” ballad history by serving as temporal markers of a ballad’s circulation. The early modern printer likely never thought that his uneven woodblock would, years later, aid historians hoping to reconstruct his work.
Once the type and woodcuts are secure – when the “make-ready” is complete – chance might continue to play a role in the character of the printed object. Wobbly type and uneven woodblocks are aided by their co-conspirators: uneven ink and slipping paper. Stilley warned us of so many unpredictable potential problems that lie lurking in the press, all of which might mar the final product. In the case of our painstakingly assembled and locked-up type and woodcuts, for instance, we later found out, as Stilley noted that “things were wiggly; there were a few too big spacers that made a little teeter-totter effect.” She then offered a long list of other possible errors of which the printer must always be mindful:
not correct amount of spacing making each line equal in pressure. . . . Just a slight difference means that the line might be looser or if one line in a grouping is slightly longer the furniture won’t be hitting evenly either. . . . There is more engineering and physics involved than a working car. . . .It could be the physicality of the press bed – slight dips of high spots. The make-ready has to be even – the fabric on the frisket could have a defect that adds pressure or reduces pressure in a thin spot. The way the platen hits the type, the paper, the type itself, the way it is inked…all these things are possible.
Stilley had prefaced this list with a nod to “evil aliens” and “magic gnomes,” magical forces that she jokingly cited as possible disruptive elements to the whole process. Neither her reference to supernatural powers nor her invocation of physics seems far off the mark when one tries to find explanations for each and every printing error we faced when producing our ballad. Even the ink and paper – two tools of the printing process that are brought in only at the final moment of printing – promise to introduce chance and error to the printing process. Ink often finds its way into places where it is unwanted, piling up in the woodblock carvings and eventually rendering them useless. The ink is also able to lure the applicator into a false sense of security, since it can be applied in a seemingly sufficient manner, only for it to have fooled the applicator with a glistening sheen that is not thick enough to adequately mark the paper. The paper, during this whole process, needs a careful eye: faced with a turned shoulder on a piece of type, paper will slip away so that the ink appears on only part of the page.
In her summary of potential errors and missteps that printers might make, Stilley concludes her list: “Yes – lots of things can go wrong, do go wrong, will go wrong . . . which is one reason that there was a lot of discarded pages or books bound with not perfect pages.” The latter option, the binding of books with imperfections, speaks to the character of many broadside ballads archived in EBBA. The sheer number of ballads that were printed and disseminated meant that imperfections were not only tolerated, but became expected. Nevertheless, before these imperfections due to happenstance were absorbed into the market of print, one more part of the printing process could introduce errors. When all of the variables fall into place and the broadside ballad is finally printed, the ballad is not yet finished until the proofreader has done her work. Conceptually, the fact that the actual typos of the ballad will not be discovered until after the type has been set and the press adjusted and readjusted is very interesting; it is only when the ballad is put together as an apparent whole that the mistakes, the misplaced pieces that work to fragment an otherwise completed work, can be easily identified. Even a skilled typesetter, used to reading the set letters upside down and backwards, cannot spot all the mistakes when looking at a make-ready, and the proofreading part of the process is essential to catch those typos and other mistakes that are not marked by the red and green squiggly lines we have come to use as crutches on our computers.
At this stage in the process, forgiveness rather than correction often becomes the logical course of action. One of the mistakes we caught actually stemmed from a premeditated decision during the typesetting. Upon running out of apostrophes, the typesetters substituted an upside down comma in the word “I’le.” Unfortunately, the substitution did not pass as easily in the printed ballad as it did in our minds; as visible below, the modified quotation mark is facing the wrong direction.
Some mistakes became so commonplace that their occurrence would often be forgiven; one such example of this is the use of zeros (0) in place of capital “o’s,” as noted above. The small size, similar shape, and flexibility in terms of placement make this an easy error that might slip by even the proofreader, let alone the typesetter. In our case, we caught the error but could not fix it because a capital “O” is wider than the numeral “0,” and our forme had already been set. There was no going back. Sheer physical discrepancies preclude forgiveness for other such mistakes, however; a “g,” another letter easily placed upside down, starts along the spectrum of more glaring but still typical and often overlooked mistakes. The two little “o’s” linked by a tiny line that make up the “g” make this an easy letter to scramble. At the end of the day, some of the mistakes caught during the proofreading must be forgiven, if not forgotten.
And indeed, this forgiveness echoes forward to the present day in our current work with broadside ballads. Transcribers who work for EBBA, for instance, gather and catalogue broadside ballads as ballad sheet facsimiles, facsimile transcriptions, and recordings. The EBBA transcriber must often “make new” the text of a ballad during the transcribing process, as Charlotte Becker explains in her essay on diplomatic transcription. The sense of happenstance and its agency that I have developed here expands on Becker's conclusions about the relationship between the printer who printed the original ballad and the transcriber who must “make it new”:
Perhaps the printer accidentally jostled the laid lines of type before setting all the furniture and lacked time or desire to re-set it all properly. Instead of replicating this (probably) accidental jumble, the EBBA transcriber does her best to reconstruct the text as it was most likely intended to appear. The transcriber consults other editions of the same ballad, studies the disordered print to make sure it is a reasonable match, and uses [square brackets] to indicate where she has had to conjecture, delineating the space of her judgment from the hapless compositor’s.
EBBA transcribers occasionally encounter text that speaks to a moment of disaster in the printing house, leaving the text completely garbled; their job as transcribers involves the combined acknowledgement of this jumble with the decision to aim for reconstruction rather than replication. Concessions that were made during the ballad's printing echo forward to the concessions that must be made at the time of the ballad’s transcribing, all thanks to the happenstance moments that occur during the printing process.
But what do we learn about ballads when we learn that they are built, in part, from chance? The problems that we encountered during the whole process anticipate the very action that lends the broadside ballad its character as a widely disseminated literary artifact: sheer movement. In order to end up with a printed ballad, printers and editors had to perform a series of physical movements that often resulted in the mistakes we faced. Moving type, slipping ink, warping woodcuts, falling type: all the moving pieces in play during the creation of a printed text work with, and often against, the individuals at play in the ballad creation process. Physical movement lends to the creation of the ballad, a piece of work that is itself defined by its physically widespread dissemination. The ordered steps of the process, the rules in place, and the postures to be held are the overcoat of stability that we might identify with the printing practice. Beneath this coat of process-based order, however, we find seemingly endless opportunities for happenstance to transform the ballads we labored over, ready to mark our ballad with errors that, as this essay has shown, were often a direct result of the moving parts and bodies at play during the entire procedure of printing a ballad. Our work has shown us just how closely the transient nature of the broadside ballad embodies the conditions under which these ballads were produced, from the seventeenth century print houses to the contemporary UC Riverside print lab.