A vast store of plates
The idea of storing vast numbers of stereotype plates in a publisher’s warehouse, as Tauchnitz seem to have done for many years, sounds incredibly old-fashioned in this digital age. But for Bernhard Tauchnitz it was the latest technology. He was in the perfect position to understand the benefits, as his uncle, the printer-publisher Karl Tauchnitz, had been the first to introduce stereotyping to Germany, and the young Bernhard had worked for him as an apprentice. So when he launched his own publishing company in 1837, it might have seemed the natural thing to do.
In the 19th century every printed page involved the laborious process of building up a page of type, letter by letter into a frame, using individual cast metal letters. After printing it would be broken up, so that the letters could be re-used. If the book was later reprinted, every page would have to be re-assembled, letter by letter. With the stereotyping process, instead of using the assembled page of type for printing directly, a mould was taken and used to create a metal plate for the whole page. The type could then be broken up, while the plate was used for the printing and stored, so that it could be re-used if necessary. Reprinting a book became a much less expensive process, and publishers could be more cautious about the number of copies they ordered in the first printing.
Yet oddly it seems that the first two volumes in the Tauchnitz Collection of British Authors, were probably not printed from stereotype plates, judging by the evidence of their reprints. Both ‘Pelham’ by Bulwer Lytton, number 1 in the series, and the first volume of ‘The Pickwick Papers’ by Dickens, were quickly not only reprinted but re-set. The first printing of Pelham has 477 pages, but the first reprint is re-set with 467 pages. The setting with 467 pages is then reprinted many times over the next 50 years or more, so almost certainly from stereotype plates. The same pattern applies for volume 1 of ‘The Pickwick Papers’. The first printing has 446 pages, but it was quickly re-set with 432 pages and that setting was then repeatedly re-used, until replaced with a third setting possibly around the 1880s.
Volume 2 of Pickwick was announced for publication in December 1841, around 2 months after volume 1, although there is some doubt about the actual publication dates. Here there is no evidence of an early re-setting, with 427 pages in all early printings, so possibly by the time it was first printed, Tauchnitz had already changed his mind on stereotyping. The success of the first two volumes of the series had become evident and they were having to be reprinted, so the extra cost of producing stereotype plates seemed well justified. From that point on, stereotype plates seem to have been used for all the books.
A single plate of type would have been used to print 8 sides of text (and another plate to print a further 8 sides on the back of the paper before folding and cutting), so these plates would be quite large things to store. For a typical volume, with say 320 pages, there would be around 40 stereotype plates to be stored. And by the end of the 19th century, with over 3000 volumes in print, the store might have included well over 100,000 plates. It’s difficult to imagine quite what 100,000 large metal plates would have looked like, but they must have taken up a fair amount of space.