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You’ve Got Mail: An Unfortunate Candidate

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Letter from J. Cluis (verso). MS Typ 885On September 8, 1827, the French printer-lithographer J. Cluis wrote to the members of the jury for the Exhibition of Industrial Products (“Exposition des produits de l’Industrie”) to present his invention of “autography” (“autographie”).

Little is known about Cluis except that he was active as a printer-lithographer from the 1820s to the 1840s in Paris, and that prior to this time he was a high school teacher. In his letter, Cluis describes his print shop as including a large number of skilled workers, and as specializing in printing for “Business, Law and Administrative accounting.” He must, therefore, have had the equipment to print texts with movable type and figures (tables and charts, etc.) by lithography. Some proof of his specialization in these fields is evident in his later production of an algebra textbook (A. Riquier, Cours d’arithmétique d’après les principes de Pestalozzi … Paris : impr.-lithogr. de Cluis, 1831). The fact that he could print both text and image, in equal measure, must have inspired him to develop the technique of autography. The main goal of Cluis’s letter to the jury was to promote the benefits of his invention. Autography, which he described as a form of lithographic writing, allowed for the mass reproduction of drawings that had originally been made on paper by transferring them onto a lithographic stone, using a greasy ink. The advantage of this method was the ability to print 10 to 12,000 copies of an image from the same lithographic stone without any loss of quality. Such large print runs would have been impossible, as Cluis pointed out, with an etched or engraved copper plate, on which wear and tear appears after printing one to two thousand copies.

Letter from J. Cluis (recto) MS Typ 885

There was a further benefit to Cluis’s invention. While interest in the new printmaking technique of lithography (invented in 1798) had centered on developing its ability to reproduce drawings and had neglected its potential for reproducing manuscript texts, Cluis envisioned his invention as ideal for printing “the longest and the more complex types of writing” at a low cost. He thought autography would be especially useful for printing books in Arabic and Persian. Indeed, Cluis remarked, these books were rare and expensive in France due to their having to be printed in Calcutta and then imported through England. Their scarcity “prevent[ed] the development of oriental languages in France.”

Letter from J. Cluis (verso). MS Typ 885

Cluis mentioned that he was in the process of printing a book in Persian using his new technique. This must have been the book Gulistān-i Shaykh Muṣliḥ al-Dīn Saʻdī Shīrāzī / Le parterre de fleurs du Cheikh Moslih-eddin Saadi de Chiraz. Edition autographique published in 1828 and produced in collaboration with the Persian specialist N. Semelet.

Le parterre de fleurs du Cheikh Moslih-eddin Saadi de Chiraz (title page). OL 37904.4, Widener Library, Harvard University

Le parterre de fleurs du Cheikh Moslih-eddin Saadi de Chiraz (opening). OL 37904.4, Widener Library, Harvard University

To show the quality of his invention, Cluis had even printed his letter to the jury by autography.

The jury of the exhibition, however, was not sufficiently impressed by Cluis’s invention to award him a medal (his name does not appear in Rapport sur les produits de l’industrie française : présenté, au nom du Jury Central, a S.E.M. le comte de Saint-Cricq, Ministre Secrétaire d’état du commerce et des manufactures … Paris : Imprimerie Royale, 1828) and Gulistān-i Shaykh Muṣliḥ al-Dīn Saʻdī Shīrāzī seems to have been the only foray by the lithographer into Arabic script and autography (the preface of the book covers in great detail the difficulty of printing the book).

Yet, Cluis had understood the potential of lithography for commercial printing, and for oriental languages, and he was not the only French lithographer trying to capture this market during this period; see for example Alphabet arabe:

Alphabet arabe, accompagné d'exemples / écrit par Ellious Bocthor (title page) TypW 815.20.223

Alphabet arabe, accompagné d'exemples / écrit par Ellious Bocthor (opening) TypW 815.20.223

Lithography was used to print books in Arabic and Persian until the first part of the twentieth century. As for autography, it was used (and perhaps perfected) in the 1830s by the Swiss artist Rodolphe Töpffer to publish his books, which mixed text and image and were thought to be some of the earliest examples of comic books

Histoire de Mr. Jabot / [Rodolphe Töpffer]. Typ 865.33.8412

Voyage aux Alpes et en Italie / [Rodolphe Töpffer]. Typ 865.37.8412

J. Cluis’s letter belongs to a collection of business letters related to the book trade in France from 1612 to 1868. The collection is a part of the Philip Hofer Bequest, MS Typ 885

This post is part of a weekly feature on the Houghton Library blog, “You’ve Got Mail,” based on letters in Houghton Library. Every Friday this year a Houghton staff member will select a letter from the diverse collections in the Library and put that letter into context. All posts associated with this series may be viewed by clicking on the You’veGotMail tag.

[Thanks to Caroline Duroselle-Melish, Assistant Curator of Printing & Graphic Arts, for contributing this post.]

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