Press Figure

‘Press figures’ or ‘press numbers’ are denoted by symbols including but not exclusively the following characters: *, +, &c, and were later represented by Arabic numbers (Bibliographical Terms and Symbols). Press numbers are generally found in or below the ‘white-line’ which in printing terminology includes the direction-line containing the catchwordand on appropriate pages it also includes the signature (Povey 254). Press figures are usually seen on a verso to avoid colliding with a signature (see Fig. 1) but they often appear on a recto (see Fig. 2). Generally, press figures do not appear more than twice in a gathering but if there are two press figures present they never appear on pages belonging to the same forme (Chapman 175). This may be due to the fact that a pressman generally set all the type for either the inner forme or outer forme of a sheet and if a separate pressman set the type for the opposite forme (either inner or outer) it cannot appear on the same gathering because the inner and outer formes are separate collections of leaves.

Fig. 1: press figure on a verso

Press figures are related directly to the organisation of a printing-house. Their purpose was to divide work equitably among pressmen by signifying the pressman responsible for working on a particular forme. They allowed the master-printer to keep track of wages and they were indicative of which pressman was responsible for errors (Bibliographical Terms and Symbols). Press Figures are listed in W. Savage’s A Dictionary of the Art of Printing published in 1841. The dictionary states that press figures were used for the purposes listed above and it also suggests that in addition to avoiding confusion with a signature, the reason why press figures appeared on a verso more often than on a recto was to avoid misleading the bookbinder.

Press figures were commonly used in Britain from approximately 1629-1866 but they also appear in American books printed in during the same period (Bibliographical Terms and Symbols). The earliest known reference to press figures occurs in The Printer’s Grammar by Caleb Stower (1779-1816) under ‘Rules and Regulations to be observed in a Printing-Office’. When referring to pressmen he asserts that ‘working without a figure, unless particularly ordered, a fine of three-pence’ (Povey 252). This stresses the importance of using press figures and suggests that pressmen may have used other press figures in order to manipulate wages or if they were particularly prone to mistakes as a method of avoiding punishment. In order to counter-act this, a fine was imposed on pressmen caught using a press figure that was not assigned to him, as stated by The Printer’s Grammar. Johnson’s Typographia reproduces Stower’s account word for word but also adds a footnote which comments that the custom of using press figures had grown into disuse by the time the book went to print in 1824. Following this, Gaskell suggests that a more efficient system of book-keeping was commonly practised which made press figures redundant (250).

Fig. 2: press figure on a recto

From a practical perspective, press figures assist bibliographers in ‘the detection not only of otherwise undifferentiated re-impressions but also of half sheet imposition and other problems of format, the size of editions and the size and practice of particular printing shops (ABC for Book Collectors). W.B. Todd’s unpublished University of Chicago doctoral dissertation (1949) engages with this by demonstrating the high value of variant press figures in detecting re-impressed sheets and “in assigning order of impressions within editions of popular and frequently reprinted eighteenth century authors,” he observes that the lack of records relating to press figures means that many re-impressions in a whole or in part have gone unrecognised (Bowers 321).

While press figures served a practical purpose for approximately two centuries, the modern book collector will only need to take note of them where they have proved significant for a particular edition of a particular book. For example, if copies of a first edition of a particular book were not sold, a printer may insert the title page printed for the second edition into the first edition of the book in order to sell the original book as a second edition. However, if the printer needed to reset the type for the second edition of the book, the same pressmen who worked on the first edition of the book may not be available to set the type for the second edition of the book, therefore pressmen setting the type for the second edition would have to use different press figures in order to keep track of their wages and to avoid fines. If the press figures in the two issues of the book are compared, one may discover that the press figures in their issue correspond with the press figures in the first edition of the book but not with the other issue and may surmise that his/her particular issue was originally a first edition, and that the printer simply inserted the title page of the second edition into the first edition of the book because it was not sold when it was first issued.

Bibliographical Terms and Symbols. Eng244: Textual Histories, September 2012. Web. Oct 22 2012.
Bowers, Fredson. Principles of Bibliographical Description. Delaware: Oak Knoll Press, 2005. Print.
Carter, John and Nicolas Barker. ABC for Book Collectors. 8th ed. Oak Knoll: New Castle; London: British Library, 2004.
Chapman, R.W. ‘Printing with Figures’. A Quarterly Review of Bibliography. Fourth Series, Volume 3 (1923): 175-176. The Library. Web. 22 Oct 2012.
Gaskell. Philip. ‘Eighteenth-century Press Numbers: Their Use and Usefulness’. A Quarterly Review of Bibliography. Fifth Series, Volume 4 (1950): 249-261. The Library. Web. 22 Oct 2012.
Povey, Kenneth. ‘A Century of Press Figures’. A Quarterly Review of Bibliography. Fifth Series, Volume 15 (1959): 251-73. The Library. Web. 22 Oct 2012.

Select Fables of Esop and Other Fabulists in Three Books. London: Printed for R. and J. Dodsley in Pallmall, 1761. Print.

Contributed by Caitriona Sweeney.

2 responses to “Press Figure

  1. I think you have a mistake in the last sentence of paragraph one. More than one press figure CAN appear on the same gathering because the inner and outer formes are THE SAME collection of leaves.

  2. Pingback: Please Return to the Stenographic Department | JHIBlog

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