Though the history of printing in the United States for the period 1820 to 1850 remains scantily documented when compared with the colonial period preceding it, we do know some things about the printing of the Book of Mormon. We know that it was produced in frontier America by a newspaper publisher who was fairly unskilled in making books. It was made of what appear to be American materials. And it was folded and bound in the old traditional manner.
In fact, from start to finish, the first edition of the Book of Mormon was made by hand.
The Prophet Joseph Smith made several visits to newspaper editors and publishers prior to the printing of the book. Letters indicate that his appearance was engaging, but his business proposition was unusual and refused. His request for 5,000 copies of a book from newspaper publishers was a far cry from a request to produce 5,000 newspapers. He was twenty years beyond the scope of his generation. The large quantity would have been more readily feasible to publishers after 1847, when the rotary press was introduced.
In 1830 book publishers in the United States were not producing books in large editions, either. In fact, until 1820 seventy percent of the books circulating in America had been printed in Great Britain.
The size of first editions of books in America varied. While religious and staple books led with large editions, usual editions ran from 500 or 600 to 2,000 copies. The Bible, the most salable book, was on occasion printed in a 10,000-copy edition. But most printers felt that it was better business “to be forced to reprint a successful book than to carry on … [their] shelves a large remainder of a volume that had failed to make its way.”1
“The most tedious and difficult task that confronted a colonial printer,” writes Wendell J. Ashton, “was the production of a book of a considerable number of pages.”2 The huge amount of work involved in production was due to the state of the materials and presses, which at the time caused the publishers to keep edition sizes small. When they did produce a large edition, selling it out often became a problem.
To illustrate what was considered a “large quantity,” John Wilson, the son of a famous Cambridge printer, had apprenticed on an iron press in 1843. One extremely large order of his involved the production of a sixteen-page octavo (eight pages cut from one sheet of paper) tract of 100,000 copies. He considered 2,000 copies of the tract as being a good day’s work. It took fifty days to print this edition. In his words, “this was a formidable number to print on a hand press.”3 Since the Book of Mormon involved 185,000 copies of octavo layout printed on both sides, it represented a doubly formidable quantity of printed material.
When we understand the circumstances surrounding mass publication in that era, the somewhat overwhelming nature of Joseph Smith’s request for 5,000 copies becomes more readily apparent.
Immediately after Joseph Smith and Martin Harris made a second trip to Rochester, New York, to find a publisher for the Book of Mormon, some of the newspapers decided to oppose the “Golden Bible.” Rather than attack the Prophet themselves, they quoted an old article from one of his hometown papers and gave an interview with Martin Harris as their news. The Rochester Advertiser and Telegraph published this article on August 31, 1829, quoting from the Palmyra Freeman: “The greatest piece of superstition that has come within our knowledge … is generally known and spoken of as the ‘Golden Bible.’ … A few, however, believed the ‘golden’ story, among them Martin Harris, an honest and industrious farmer of this town.”4
One week later a second paper in Rochester, the Gem, published information about the visit of Joseph and Martin in an article dated September 5, 1829: “A man by the name of Martin Harris was in this village a few days since endeavoring to make contract for printing a large quantity of a work called the Golden Bible … now in press in Palmyra, Wayne County.”5
Pomeroy Tucker, who had been established at Palmyra in 1822 and was “for many years editor and proprietor of the Wayne Sentinel, and was editorially connected with that paper when its press printed the original edition of the Book of Mormon,” was present at the repeated consultations and negotiations between Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris, and Egbert B. Grandin “in relation to the printing of the book, and united with the latter in the friendly admonition vainly seeking to divert Harris from his persistent fanaticism in that losing speculation.”6
But finally, in 1829, as the late August sun beat down upon a building housing the printing equipment of the Wayne Sentinel, the Book of Mormon went to press.
Mr. Grandin and his associates had taken on the unpopular task of printing this book when other nearby newspaper editors refused. Grandin consented to produce the book only as a “business matter,” with the understanding among his friends and associates that he was in no way related to the religion that the book represented.7
Outwardly, the building of the Wayne Sentinel reflected the image of any small, country printing establishment of that period in the United States. But the spirit of a few excited men gathered within this particular building at this time reflected something very different. To them, the dawning of a new dispensation seemed imminent.
When John H. Gilbert, main compositor for the Book of Mormon, showed those present the galley sheet of the first few pages of the book, including the title page, three onlookers—Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, and Joseph Smith—were delighted with this first impression of the book in print. Two others, however—Pomeroy Tucker and Stephen S. Harding—did not share the feeling of anticipation and joy that filled the hearts of the others.
Still, the business transaction had been made, although it was unusual from its inception. The usual procedure was for the printer to completely examine the manuscript and make plans for the form of the book. But Mr. Grandin and his associates had to make their decisions from a few pages of manuscript, taking Joseph Smith’s word on the number of “folios” that the manuscript would make.8
From these few specimen pages, Grandin had to decide the cost of composing and setting the type, the choice of the proper type size, the book size, the amount of ink, paper, leather, and binding materials needed, and the time and cost of printing and bookbinding. These were all figured out with hardly any knowledge of the manuscript that he proposed to set into book form.
The chief compositor, Gilbert, also began his job under unusual circumstances. The manuscript was only given to him by a guard; because some of the translated material had been lost, Joseph Smith was constrained to have a guard accompany the small batches of copy to be set each day. It was then composed, set in galley and page forms, checked out, and proofread. The manuscript was always withdrawn each evening by Oliver Cowdery and a guard, who was sometimes the Prophet’s own brother, Hyrum Smith.
Aside from this slightly disquieting procedure, the printing office soon hummed with normal activity. Once the first proof sheets had been readied, printing on the press could proceed simultaneously with the typesetting, galleying, paging, and proofreading. Gilbert wasted no time, after he received Joseph Smith’s approval on the first proof sheets, in finishing the first signature (large sheet of printed pages) of the Book of Mormon.
Gilbert began typesetting in the last week of August 1829. From that time forward, Gilbert, looking much like a baker in his white bib apron and rolled-up shirt sleeves, was alternately helping in the printing or composing of the next signature, assisted by Pomeroy Tucker. For the main part of the Book of Mormon, they used a book-page size type, referred to as “large duodecimos,” and a composing stick nearly “eight inches long” with one moveable side that could be set to determine the exact length of line desired for the book.
As Gilbert composed the type for the Book of Mormon, he would read the manuscript sentence by sentence, memorizing the wording, spelling, and punctuating exactly as he proceeded. At the end of each word, he would add a small space, with the thumb of his left hand holding each new letter in position at the end of the growing line of letters. When he finished a line, he would either hyphenate the word, fit one more small word in, or end the line and respace the words. In any case, the line was justified by spacing it until it had a firm fit. Sometimes this involved removing all the spaces between the words and inserting wider or smaller ones.
When the measure of his composing stick was finally full, Major Gilbert would pause to read the lines that he had just set. To a layman the face of the type would be upside down and reversed, but to a man skilled in this profession, this reading was done as easily as is normal reading. The whole Book of Mormon was given its first proofreading this way.
After he read the type in the stick and corrected it, Gilbert would lift the lines of type out of the stick and place them in a long metal tray called a galley. He did this until he had completed a slab of type over twenty inches long.
We cannot be sure how fast Gilbert set the type for the book, but words cannot be composed as quickly as they can be written. For four centuries composing a book meant picking up each letter singly and assembling it with other letters in a composing stick. Compositors achieved great dexterity in this work, but there is a limit to the speed of the fingers.
As the typesetting progressed, Gilbert’s nimble fingers kept up a regular pace while his eyes scanned the manuscript copy, which he kept resting on the uppercase type fonts, over the small capitals, where it could be easily seen and need not be disturbed. This was the typical typesetting scene that Oliver Cowdery and his companions watched as they guarded the manuscript during the intense August heat, into the cool days of September, through the crisp days of October, and on until February of 1830.
The printing also progressed rapidly during this time. The busy office never knew a moment’s silence for eleven hours a day, six days a week, after work on the Book of Mormon commenced.
When each galley of type was sufficiently full, Pomeroy Tucker would place a piece of metal, called furniture, against the last line to prevent slipping. He tightened the galley by inserting wedges, or quoins (coins), so that there was firm pressure on every line. Four of these galleys would hold one signature—sixteen pages, all printed on one sheet of paper, with eight pages on each side. The type was arranged, or “paged,” so that the pages would be in the correct order after the printed sheets were folded. This arrangement process was called imposition.
The printers of the Book of Mormon used a “right angle imposition.” This meant that when the large piece of paper that carried the imposition was folded down to eight leaves, each new fold had to be made at right angles to the previous one. The result of the folding was eight leaves of paper with printing on both sides, or the sixteen consecutive pages that made up the signature.
The folding of these sheets of paper was usually done by the girls and women in the printer’s family. A bone folding stick was used to make the fold neat and sharp. The folders could usually achieve great speed and accuracy in folding these right-angle impositions.
Assuming that folding was done continuously as the printing progressed, some 30,816 sheets could have been folded every month. This would have been at a rate of 7,704 sheets per week, or 1,284 sheets per day six days a week. If three girls had been working each day, they would have folded 428 sheets apiece. If it took one minute to fold one sheet, each girl would have had to put in at least 5 hours and 21 minutes per day.
The days must have passed quickly for the printers of the Book of Mormon during that winter of 1829–30. The men and boys were up early, making their way on foot and horseback to the Sentinel office. As soon as they had a fire going in the shop, they were busy getting the press readied for another day’s work.
The particular press that Mr. Grandin used was a Washington press, constructed of iron and considered of very good design.
In form the hand presses differed, but the basic principles of operation were the same. When Grandin and the apprentices began working with the press each morning, they would lock eight pages of the type into a metal frame called a chase and then lay the chase on the bed of the press. One of the apprentices would ink the type by daubing it with an ink-covered ball made of leather and filled with sand. The tympan, to which the dampened paper was affixed, was then lowered into the type.
The bed, which was on runners, was then slid under the upright part of the press by turning a handle. This would place the bed below the iron plate, or platen. A lever could then bring the platen down with considerable pressure on the tympan, thus bringing the paper into contact with the type and making the impression.
When the lever of the press was released, the bed was withdrawn and the tympan raised. A sheet of paper had been printed on one side.
One of the men would then remove the paper and hang it over a line as if it were drying laundry. Meanwhile, another man would begin the press process once more. This way they could print eight pages at once on one side of a single piece of paper. When that side of the signature dried, they would then print on the other.
Concentration and rhythm characterized the work done at the press. Much like participants in a dance, the pressmen rhythmically inserted, inked, lowered, adjusted, pushed and pulled, printed, and removed the paper on the press to produce sheet after sheet of printed matter at slightly over four sheets per minute. As good pressmen were known for their regular rhythm and consistent production, Mr. Grandin and his associates at the Wayne Sentinel were no doubt proud to print with very little time lost or wasted. By their printing standards, they produced the Book of Mormon in good time on that Washington press—especially considering the fact that the print shop continued to publish the Wayne Sentinel each week.
While we offhandedly state that the Book of Mormon came to press during the last part of August 1829 and the printing ended in March 1830, we often forget the bookbinding part of the work. Yet this ancient process was an important one in making the Book of Mormon.
After the printed signatures (folded into bundles of eight leaves) were placed in order according to their numbers, they were placed on a sewing frame and cords were sewn through the spinal fold with a special stitch called the kettle stitch. Then they were hammered down the spine to tighten the folds, screwed into a standing press, and glued along the spine to hold them together permanently. When this glue reached the right elasticity, the spine was tapped to give each book the necessary rounded shape at the back for the addition of the cover.
The covers were cut from cardboard and a thin white sheet of paper was pasted onto one side. This caused the board to draw slightly in and curve into the proper shape for a book cover as the paste dried. The ends of the cords previously sewed through the spinal fold of the book were glued into these covers.
To give the covers their final dress, dampened leather was carefully drawn over the cardboard, smoothed over the spine, pared down at the corners, and glued to the cardboard frames. When all the edges were tightly glued down and the corners squared, the books were left to dry.
In this busy atmosphere during the binding of the Book of Mormon, none of these craftsmen could know that they were making history. When Grandin and his small crew had finished the first few copies of the Book of Mormon and set them up for sale in the small bookstore in Palmyra, they had little realization of the consequences and far-reaching effects to come because of this handcrafted product they had made.
As they tooled and lettered the name of the book on the leather cover with gold that would not tarnish, they little knew that it would be untarnished over a hundred years later and that the book itself contained a message far more untarnishable than the letters on its cover—a message of truth for all the world.