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Unseen Hands: Women Printers, Binders and Book Designers    
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Unseen Hands: Women Printers Binders and Book Designers

Women have been involved in printing and the making of books ever since these crafts were first developed. Even before the advent of movable type, there was a strong tradition of women producing manuscripts in western European religious houses. In the Convent of San Jacopo di Ripoli in Florence, we find the first documented evidence, in 1476, of women working as printers. Girls and women were often trained by their fathers or husbands to assist in printing businesses, and there are many instances from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries of women taking over and managing these enterprises upon the early demise of their male relatives. We may be sure that women played many different roles in these situations, although what exactly is not always easy to verify. Many, certainly, only managed the business, while others were more directly involved. Estellina, wife of the printer Abraham Conant, proudly stated in a Hebrew book, Behinat `olam (Mantua, ca. 1477) that “she, together with one man, did the typesetting.”

By the nineteenth century, in both Europe and the United States, male-only unions ruled the printing business. Women, where employed at all, were relegated to certain low-paying jobs considered best suited for the weaker sex, such as dressing (polishing imperfections) from metal type, folding printed sheets, and sewing bindings. Yet there were exceptions. Emily Faithfull, for example, founded the Victoria Press in London specifically to teach women the trade. Agnes Peterson established the Women's Co-Operative Printing Union in San Francisco in 1868. Augusta Lewis Troup, journalist and typesetter for Susan B. Anthony’s newspaper The Revolution, was elected corresponding secretary of the International Typographical Union in 1870, the first woman to hold any national union office. Women were notably successful at bookbinding, both “on the line”-- producing factory bindings -- and in the creation of splendid examples of hand binding, particularly during the Arts and Crafts Revival of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This same period also witnessed a renewed interest in fine printing, and women such as Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Yeats founded private presses that produced handsome limited editions of the work of contemporary authors and artists.

Since the mid-twentieth century, women have moved into every job in commercial printing, from running the paper (Katherine Graham) to running the press. Examples of the fine printing of Bertha Goudy and Jane Grabhorn also grace this exhibition, along with the work of such notable designers and illustrators as Elizabeth Shippen Green, Clare Leighton, and Elizabeth Friedlander. This exhibition represents only one contribution toward a full history of the roles of women in printing and the arts of the book. Much remains to be discovered, documented, and written, though it is likely that many women -- particularly those outside the mainstream -- will remain forever unknown and “unseen.” Each woman featured in this exhibition stands in for thousands of her sisters, known and unknown, who have loved books and printing, and gotten on with the work.


Princeton University Library, Graphic Arts Collection
Rebecca W. Davidson, Curator of Graphic Arts
Tel: (609) 258-3197
Last Modified: November 5, 2003