November 15, 2013
How to make a book, in 1925
by Christopher King
This silent film, produced in 1925 by the FBI (that’s the Federation of British Industry), gives viewers an inside look at the printing process of the Oxford University Press. Beginning with a “charming view” of the building the press has occupied since 1830, the film steps us through the whole process of printing books like the Oxford English Dictionary, from casting the metal type to compositing the pages; preparing the plates; running the presses; folding, gathering, and sewing the printed sheets (a job for the Girls’ Section, naturally); gilding the edges (note how the gilder uses his hair at 12:40 to create a static field and pick up the gold foil); preparing and stamping the cloth cover; and, finally, joining everything together. At the end, of course, the books are shipped and “A consignment of Literature goes forth to all parts of the World.”
While the film is steeped in the immense history of the Oxford University Press, what’s remarkable is how little things have changed in the last ninety years. They may not cast metal type using 250-year-old punches anymore, but many other parts of the printing process still look exactly the same today.
Christopher King is the former Art Director of Melville House.