The Printed Book

by Harry G. Aldis, M.A. Cambridge at the University Press 1916

Scholar Printers of the Sixteenth Century Part 6

The Elzevirian duodecimos achieved great contemporary popularity, and many authors thought it an honor to have their writings included in the series. But the acclaim was punctuated here and there with complaints at the smallness of type and the loss of dignity sustained by important works in being printed in such diminutive format. The long series of volumes comprised a large proportion of the classic and standard literature of the day in well printed and fairly correct editions, and possessing the special advantage that their small size enabled them to be sold at a price (many of them were published at eighteen-pence to two shillings) which brought them within easy reach of a wide circle of readers. In short, they stood in much the same relation to the ordinary edition as does the seven penny novel- of to-day to the six-shilling edition. Their contemporary success is therefore not surprising; but it is not so easy to account for the great fascination they have possessed for later generations of collectors. They cannot be considered attractive books: in truth, they are rather scrubby little volumes, and the narrow page gives them a mean and cramped feeling. For comeliness they cannot compare with the small books issued by Simon de Colines, the Gryphii, Christopher Plantin, and other sixteenth-century printers.

The success of the Elzevir books naturally brought imitations and even counterfeits. But the Elzevirs had little room for complaint on this score, for, in that age of free trade in literature, they made no scruple to add to their own series any book they thought worthy of inclusion in it, probably deeming it more of a compliment to the author's fame than any wrong done to his pocket. Among the more prominent of these rivals were Jean Maire and Frans Hacke (Hackius), two of the six-and-twenty booksellers who were carrying on business in Leyden in 1651; and in Amsterdam, Jean Jansson, Abraham Wolfgang, and Jean Blaeu. The last of these, one of the principal Dutch printers of his day, is, however, more celebrated for the large and important illustrated works which issued from his press. His printing office was furnished with nine presses; each presided over by one of the Muses. It was his father, Willem Janszoon Blaeu, who, about 1620, made the first important improvement in the printing press, which up to that time had differed but little from the press of the early printers; and there was no further change of any moment until, at the end of the eighteenth century, Earl Stanhope constructed, in England, the first iron printing press.