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If you love reading as much as I do, you’ve probably pondered just what you’d give to keep the books coming.
Now, while selling my immortal soul for the latest bit of fiction might be going too far, back in the day to make a book, printers did need to get in league with the devil. A printer’s devil, to be exact.
So what in the world is a printer’s devil and where did their demonic name came from?
I’d never heard of them either until one day when I was flipping through a book on the history of Portland (for future novel-writing research) and came across a picture of this little boy, maybe eight years old, working at a print shop. The caption said he was a printer’s devil and I just had to find out more about what this kid was doing and where that intriguing name came from.
The result? Well, there was no one clear answer to the name question, but I did come across several legends and lore surrounding these little fellows. You can hear the tales in this week’s episode.
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Do you have to sell your immortal soul to make a book?
No, but back in the day you did need to get in league with the devil. A printer’s devil, to be exact.
So what in the world is a printer’s devil and where did their demonic name came from? You’ll discover the answers as well as the legends and lore surrounding these little fellows in this week’s episode.
Hey everyone, this is Tammie Painter and you’re listening to the Book Owl Podcast, the podcast where I entertain your inner book nerd with tales of quirky books and literary lore.
So, these days you can click a button and have most any book printed on demand and in your hands in days, but it wasn’t always so quick and easy. And no, I’m not referring tot the days when you actually had to get off your butt and go to the bookstore and buy a book.
It wasn’t all that long ago that took a lot of effort to make a book. In fact, if you wanted a book printed you might even have had to make a deal with the devil….even if that book was a bible.
Before we delve into this devilish episode it’s time for a tiny sponsor break. I know, I know, no one likes ads, but this will be quick and painless. Podcasts aren’t the cheapest things to run. There’s hosting costs, equipment, and let me tell you, they take a lot of time. So, if you like what you’re hearing and if you’re able to, you can show your appreciation and support the podcast by visiting the book owl podcast dot com slash support where you’ll find several super inexpensive ways to help keep the show running.
Okay, that wasn’t so bad, was it. Now, let’s get on with the show and the devil really is in the details with this one.
So even though we’re talking about devils, there’s no need to fear for your immortal soul (unless you’ve been very naughty). See back in the day, if you wanted a book or a newspaper, you had no choice…you had to get in league with the devil…a printer’s devil to be exact.
Of course the printing press is an invention worshipped by book nerds and we’ll explore it’s story some other time, but for now just know that up until relatively recently to make a book or newspaper, every single letter and every single space or punctuation mark on every single printed page had to arranged by a human hand…a very deft human hadn’t at that.
Okay, that’s bad enough to imagine, but not only did these someones have to lay down the letters of every word, they also had to do it in reverse so the words once printed would read correctly. So anyone out there complaining about how tricky it can be to format a document in Word, believe me, you’ve got nothing to complain about.
Anyway, as you can imagine, the work of a printer and typesetter was tedious, labor intensive work. But that work would be made a tiny bit easier if you had an assistant. And that assistant was called a printer’s devil.
This was usually a young boy, possibly an apprentice, whose main tasks would be to mix the ink and to fetch the letters as needed and to put the used letters back in the right place. And even though it’s highly likely that there were some serious child labor laws being broken, this wasn’t unskilled labor because these kids had to be somewhat literate in order to fetch the correct letter. Think about it, if you’re typesetting a word like SHOT you certainly don’t want some illiterate rapscallion mixing up your O’s and your I’s.
And there were some famous little devils, including Ben Franklin, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and John Kellogg (yes, Mr Cornflakes and healthy living himself).
Alright none who can remember their grade school days on the playground know that little boys can be hellions, but why were these particular lads called devils?
There’s actually no clear answer on this, which of course means a slew of tales have sprouted up to answer it. Some of the tales are downright dull, while others have a wonderful dose of embellishment to them.
So the most boring explanation says that the fingers of these boys would be stained black from the ink. Since Satan is the lord of darkness, the dark fingers lead people to call the kids devils. Told you that was boring. Also, I would imagine the typesetters themselves had stained fingers as well, so the explanation also falls flat on my logic meter.
The second tale is slightly more interesting and provides a nice little play on words. Okay, so the little letters that had to be arranged were cast onto tiny pieces metal. If you’ve seen how small the print is on old timey newspapers, you’ll get an idea of just how tiny those metal pieces were.
Anyway, this metal wasn’t titanium or anything and after so many uses the raised letters would wear down and anything printed using those letters would make the reader wonder if they’d developed sudden onset glaucoma.
Instead of tormenting their customers with having to needlessly visit the eye doctor, although that could have been a good side swindle, the worn type was tossed into a box so the metal could be melted down and re-cast. That box was called a hellbox and since it was these kids tossing things into the hellbox, they earned the name devils.
That’s not a bad behind the name story, but possibly my favorite one even though it’s a bit of a stretch starts with a partnership gone bad.
So Mr Printing Press himself, Johannes Gutenberg, had a business partner named Johann FUST – and no, I don’t know if you were required to be named John to work in the printing business. After his invention started revolutionizing the world, Big G started getting a big head. FUST got annoyed with Gutenberg’s attitude so he up and left one day. And he didn’t leave empty handed…he took all the machinery.
Right around this time the French court of Louis XI needed some new bibles. FUST nabbed up the commission. He also nabbed a fair amount of extra money for this commission because he told the king and all the king’s men that the bibles would be hand copied. This was how books were made before the printing press, and because it took a lot more work, it raised the price of each book.
After a reasonable amount of time FUST delivered the books…probably with a guilty twitch to his ink-stained fingers.
So, you know how when you come home with new books from the library or bookstore and you have to thumb through all of them? Well, Louis who must have a huge book nerd, did the same thing. As he was flipping and enjoying that new book smell, Louis noticed all the bibles were eerily similar. Too similar. After all, hand copying is often accompanied with transcription errors, ink blotches, and other problems.
But all these bibles were the exact same.
Now you’re probably thinking an advisor should go up to Louis and say that, “Hey we got this guy FUST who used to work with that printer guy Gutenberg, maybe he printed these bibles.” But that didn’t happen. I mean, this was the king after all and you don’t go around telling the king he got duped. So, the only excuse for such perfection had to have been that the devil had his hand in the bibles’ creation. FUST who might have only been accused of fraud ended up being jailed for witchcraft…and I bet Gutenberg was laughing the whole time.
Anyway, in a very roundabout way, this supposedly led to the term printer’s devils.
There’s a fourth and final story, one that combines legend with logic, and to me this one makes the most sense.
When printing presses started to spread out across Europe the printers decided they needed their own patron demon ( because, who doesn’t, right?). His name was Titivillus. This wasn’t a newbie on the demon block. He’d been the patron demon of scribes and was the go-to demon to blame when a scribe made a mistake in his manuscript copying. Talk about blame shifting.
In the printing world, Titivillus was a trickster who would sneak in and, when no one was looking, rearrange the type leading to misspelled words…which is an excuse I’m going to start using in my own books and newsletters! Since the assistants were the ones bringing the letters, those kids must be in league with this demon and therefore they earned the name of printers devils.
Not bad, right?
Anyway, wherever their name came from, printers devils were hard working little lads well into the early 1900s. As different methods of setting type and more efficient ways of printing evolved, the need for devils declined and soon devils were gone from the print shop altogether.
And not one single exorcist was needed.
So that’s it for printer’s devils. Or is it? With every episode I provide my newsletter recipients some extra tidbit related to the show. And with this episode, they’ll be getting one more printer devil story straight from 1960s television. If you’re not already part of the flock, sign up for The Book Owl Podcast Newsletter at the book owl podcast dot com slash contact.
Okay, one quick update to wrap things up. When I was first planning out this podcast, I wanted to follow in the footsteps of my favorite shows and release episodes every single week. Now, if you saw the list of topics I’ve got jotted down in Ye Olde Podcast Notebook, you’d know I have plenty of material to do just that. What I don’t have is the time.
My primary focus, shall we say my day job, is writing and to keep churning out books, I’d basically have to give up on sleeping, eating, and cleaning out the guinea pig cages to be able to write, record, and edit a podcast episode every week. Hopefully, once I get the hang of all this podcasting busy work, I’ll be able to do weekly shows, but for now and probably for at least the first couple months, I’m going to keep myself from going bonkers by only doing biweekly shows which will appear every other Thursday.
Thanks for listening everyone. If you enjoyed this episode I’d love it if you could leave a review or simply tell someone about the show. If you do want to leave a review, you can do that in your favorite podcast app or on Podchaser, the IMDB of podcasts and I’ll toss a link to that in the show notes. Or, feel free to email me at the book owl podcast dot com slash contact. And, like I said, if you want to get even more out of each episode, be sure to subscribe to the book owl podcast newsletter on that same page.
Again, thanks for listening and I will hoot at you next time!
The Book Owl Podcast is a production of Daisy Dog Media, copyright 2020 all rights reserved. The theme music was composed by Kevin Macleod.