Friday, May 27th, 2016...2:00 pm

The one-pull press and printing on half sheets

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One of the first things fledging historical bibliographers are taught is to identify formats: take a sheet of paper and fold it once to give folio format, fold again to make a quarto gathering, and once again for an octavo. Then they need to know about chain lines, wire lines and where to find watermarks for each format. More advanced students will tackle the varieties of 12mo, 24mo and other tricky small formats.

Students are then given information about the traditional ‘two-pull press’ which could print an entire folio sheet even though its platen was not large enough to print an entire sheet with a single pull: the paper and type were rolled under the press in two successive operations, with the press bar pulled to print the first half of the sheet, and then the carriage, with the type and paper, was advanced for the second pull which printed the second half of the sheet; the two successive pulls printed the entire sheet in a two-stage operation. All of this is (relatively) straightforward for the ‘classic’ period of book production.

For the very early years of incunable printing, things are not so simple. The original design of the press seems to have had a platen which could print one folio page at a time but no moveable carriage, requiring the two halves of the sheet to be printed in separate processes. Lotte Hellinga describes ‘one-pull presses, which printed one half of a sheet with one folio page at a time’ (Hellinga, p. 8, also p. 14). For a folio, this meant setting and printing one-page at a time for each page of the two sides of the sheet: four separate passes through the press for each folio sheet. The two-pull press with its moveable carriage was clearly a more efficient successor to the initial design of a press with a fixed tympan. For a normal quarto on the one-pull press, each pull of the press bar printed two pages only, on one half of the sheet; four passes through the press are required to give four pages on each side of the sheet, making a quarto of four leaves and eight pages. Paul Needham thinks that the earliest date for the two-pull press is c. 1472, in Venice or Rome (personal message). Lotte Hellinga gives a slightly earlier date and comments that it took a further decade for the new technology to reach all printing centers (Hellinga, p. 11).

Could things be more complicated still? What if your sheets of paper are too big to fit between the cheeks of the early one-pull presses? For a quarto, there is an easy solution: cut the sheet in half and print each half as a separate unit, just as if it were a small folio sheet. Is the resultant book a folio or a quarto? The chain lines in the final product will be horizontal, so a cataloguer will (correctly) record the book as a quarto even though it has effectively been produced as if it were a folio on smaller sheets of paper. Where it is possible to deduce that this process has taken place, the format is recorded as a ‘quarto by half sheets’ or a ‘half-sheet quarto’.

How can this phenomenon be identified in an early incunable? The best indication is to examine the pattern of watermarks in the volume. In a quarto gathering, the watermark (and any possible countermark) should be located across the gutter in the centre of the fold on one of the two pairs of leaves of the gathering. If neither of the two pairs of leaves shows a watermark, it may simply be a question of un-watermarked paper. If both pairs show the identical watermark, this can only come about if the two halves of the quarto gathering were machined separately on half sheets and the half sheets in the bound copies were drawn at random from the shelves in the warehouse. A series of these patterns throughout the volume gives a fairly conclusive identification of a quarto by half sheets (Hellinga, p. 12). A further indicator can be the presence of press pinholes on both the top and bottom edges of the pages, showing that the half sheets were pinned to the tympan at the four corners just as if they were whole folio sheets.

This can be illustrated by examples from a recent investigation of early editions of the Satires of Juvenal in the Houghton Library.


Juvenal and Persius, with the titles of Guarinus Veronensis. Milan, Antonius Zarothus, [for Marco Roma?], 1474. Royal 4° by half sheets: [1–78 84 910 102]. Houghton Library, Inc 5785

The pattern of watermarks (British Library and Harvard copies) suggests that the book was printed by half sheets on royal paper (60 x 42 cm). The copy in the Houghton Library has the following pattern (0 = watermark, x = absence):

a: .xxx||xxxx 0:4
b: 00xx||xx00 2:2
c: x0xx||xx0x 1:3
d: 000x||x000 3:1
e: xxxx||xxxx 0:4
f: xxxx||xxxx 0:4
g: xx00||00xx 2:2
h: xx||xx 0:2
i: 0x00x||x00x0 3:2

Gatherings a, e, f and h might be accounted for by being printed on un-watermarked paper but the paper is uniform in the edition; gathering d is only explicable by the half-sheet hypothesis: three leaves with watermarks and one without, instead of the expected pattern of two leaves with and two without watermarks if the gathering consisted of two full quarto sheets instead of four separate half sheets.

Another example uncovered in the Houghton collections is an edition by a different Milanese press:

Juvenal and Persius. Milan, Philippus de Lavagna, 27 May 1478. Royal 4° by half sheets: a–g8 h10. Houghton Library, Inc 5861

a: oxxx||xxxo 1:3
b: xxxx||xxxx 0:4
c: xxxo||oxxx 1:3
d: ooxx||xxoo 2:2
e: xxxo||oxxx 1:3
f: xxxx||xxxx 0:4
g: oxxx||xxxo 1:3
h: oxooo||oooxo 4:1

Even though it is not always possible to see the watermark in the gutter of this copy as the binding is rather tight, gatherings a, c, e and g show the characteristic pattern of three of one and one of the other, instead of two of each. This is confirmed by frequent signs of pinholes towards the outer edge of the top and bottom of the pages.

At least ten of the twenty earliest editions of the Satires of Juvenal printed between 1469 and 1480 were printed as quartos by half sheets, although ISTC and the Gesamtkatalog mainly record them simply as quartos. The ISTC database records very few formats as ‘quarto by half sheets’.

As a final complication in this discussion of the technology at the very beginnings of printing, the very first edition of Juvenal, printed in Rome, probably by Ulric Han, c. 1468/1469, is an octavo by quarter sheets!

Juvenal. [Rome], [Ulric Han?], [1468–1469?]. Royal 8° by quarter sheets: [1–710 88]. New York: Morgan Library, ChL 607A

The collation in tens suggests at first sight that the book might have been printed as a quarto by half-sheets, as was typical at this early date, but the direction of the chain lines does not support this. The watermark is found in the centre of the top margin of the leaf. All this indicates that the printer was working with sheets which were each one-quarter of a sheet of royal paper (60 × 42 cm), giving an uncut octavo page size of 21 × 15 cm, and that the format of the book must be considered to be octavo printed on quarter sheets (Needham, pp. 44–45).

David Shaw, Canterbury, England

David Shaw held the Bibliographical Society of America’s Folter Fellowship, 2015/2016. He worked on editions of Juvenal at the Houghton Library in April 2016. Many of the editions he consulted came from the collection of Professor Morris Hicky Morgan, left to Harvard in 1910. He is currently Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the University of Kent (England) and is a former President of the Bibliographical Society (London).

David Shaw’s bibliography of editions of Juvenal up to 1600 (in progress) can be consulted online at; full descriptions of individual editions can be downloaded for each record. A link to a list of Juvenal quartos by half sheets, including the three editions discussed above, can be found here.


For formats, foldings, watermarks, etc. : Philip Gaskell, New Introduction to Bibliography. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972, 78–107.

For the one-pull press: Lotte Hellinga, Texts in Transit: Manuscript to Proof and Print in the Fifteenth Century. Leiden: Brill, 2014, 8–15.

Quarto by half sheets: Hellinga, 2014, 18-23.

Paul Needham, ‘ISTC as a tool for analytical bibliography’, in: Bibliography and the Study of 15th-Century Civilisation, British Library Occasional Papers, 5, London (1987) 39–54).

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