How They Made Books in 1947

Back before ebooks, printing was a time-comsuming laborious process. Once the author finished the writing tasks, teams of people working together were required to produce just one book. An Encyclopaedia Britannica Films documentary created in 1947 is available on YouTube that shows the process.

No wonder printed books are so expensive! The labor and the expense of purchasing all those machines must have been astronomical.

You can watch the video on YouTube at or in the video player below.


As the daughter of a jouneyman pressman, it’s hard to forget the very good middle class jobs that the printing industry offered: from the building and servicing of the machinery, making the paper and ink, the set up and operation of the presses, the binding and shipping of books, to the bookstores that were in every town. All of these workers and companies paid taxes in their communities. To this day, I prefer a physical book over an ebook. When an ebook doesn’t have the graphics that the physical book offers, I’m secretly pleased.


My father was the foreman of the composing room at H. Wolff, one of the largest book manufacturers in the USA. During two of my High School summers, I worked in several areas of the company. I found one important omission in the process filmed – proof reading. I did this for several weeks as a reader. There was even a language to identify punctuation – bang meant exclamation point – along with symbols to identify the kind of error for the typesetter to correct. Mistakes common in books today, e.g., red versus read, were almost often caught by proofreaders. I also worked on a machine that made paperbacks, where almost all the steps, folding, trimming, gluing, covering were accomplished. I sat on a bench in front of a chute, catching the books behind me, one in each hand, then stacking them on a table in front of me.
Fun days!


I am reading a review copy of a soon-to-be-published book, “Gutenberg’s Apprentice,” by Alix Christie. It tells the story of Peter Schoeffer, an apprentice to Johann Gutenberg, the inventor of the printing press. It’s a fascinating look into the humble beginnings of book making. The book should be out in September.


My dad owned a small weekly newspaper in Oregon as I was growing up in the late 1940s and 1950s. I witnessed this, except for the copper process, taking place every day as my dad and an employee worked on the linotype (the machine which made the molded letters at the beginning of the film). My job around age 10 was to sweep the floors and then by age 12, I “killed” the newspaper by removing all the type or columns and ads which wouldn’t be used again the following week. This metal was melted down and used again. Eventually around age 14, I began operating the folder and finally began running the large newspaper printing press called the “cylinder” press. My dad lived to see the beginning of the home computer and marveled at similar terminologies and the attached printer. He didn’t quite understand the implications of the computer for the future, however. We’ve come a long way since Johannes Guttenberg in 1498. Isaac Asimov called the invention of the printing press and moveable type the third communication revolution – the first being when our ancestors began talking; the second being writing. We are in the midst of the fourth communication revolution: the electronic revolution beginning with the telegraph. Where will it go? What are the implications of the electronic communication? The implications of our ancestors using language and then writing were profound and still shake our culture even today.


Leave a Reply

Name and email address are required. Your email address will not be published.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

You may use these HTML tags and attributes:

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <pre> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong> 

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: