Printing at Bartholomew

In the very early days of the firm, Bartholomew family members such as George (1784-1871) and his son John Senior (1805-1861) worked exclusively as copperplate engravers. John Junior (1831-1893) followed in these footsteps also training as an engraver.

But crucially, something significant in the history of the firm happened to John Junior in 1853, when he secured an apprenticeship with the eminent German geographer Dr August Petermann (1822-1878).

Lithography — a new idea

Petermann was not only highly respected but came to London with new ideas and new techniques from Germany. Lithography was one such technique.

Lithography is a printing technique that uses a stone to print from as opposed to printing directly from copperplate. Printing from copperplate produced a crisp image, but it quickly wore down the copper limiting the number of times it could be used.

Engravers still worked on copperplate, but instead of printing directly from them, the image was transferred to the stone. Lithographic stones had a more durable printing surface and could be used over and over again.

John Junior and his father, John Senior, quickly realised the potential of the new technique. However, John Senior was wary about how successfully it could be adopted in Scotland. In a letter he wrote to his son in 1854 he remarks that:

'… unless in the hands of native workmen or such as have been in a German establishment, it would scarce be likely to be managed satisfactorily, being so very elaborate to produce.'

But just a month later John Senior appears to have had a change of heart. He writes to John Junior:

'… I observe that Shenck is fast securing all the important printing in Edinburgh, as besides Black, both Chambers & Fullerton are going to the stone & he seems to be the only person among them considered capable of doing the work, as he certainly has made a great improvement in the printing of map work, & which is inducing them to abandon the steel. If you had any means of acquiring a practical knowledge of the printing from stone, it would be perhaps of more importance to you than the engraving as I have no doubt if such work could be undertaken in similar style they would be glad to give us the preference – your connection with Petermann would also be likely to go for something in a matter of such kind.'

Double demy machine installed

At this time, the business was based in domestic property as John Senior and George both worked from home. But, in 1854, an opportunity to share publisher A & C Black's North Bridge premises came about. In 1859 Bartholomew took up residence, and a few years later extended the property into Carrubbers Close, to make room for their steam powered printing presses.

In 1869 they took delivery of their first lithographic double demy printing machine — 'demy' being a printing term referring to the size of paper the machine could fit. From this time onwards Bartholomew could print the maps that they had engraved.

Expanding the printing side

A major expansion of the printing side of Bartholomew's business coincided with John George Bartholomew's tenure.

John George took over the firm in 1888, and a few months later moved the business to its biggest premises yet, on Park Road in Edinburgh. These changes coincided with Bartholomew's first ever business partnership, with the printer and publisher Thomas Nelson. By 1908 the firm appear to have had 14 flat-bed, gas powered printing machines.

The printing department was subject to continual developments in technology.

John Bartholomew & Son had to respond to these technologies in order to remain competitive. Steam powered printing presses were replaced by gas and then electrically powered machines. Direct printing from lithographic stones was replaced by photolithography and offset lithography.

Offset lithography

Offset lithography remains the dominant method of printing and involves transferring the image onto a rubber blanket. It is from this blanket that the print is then taken.

The machines themselves grew more complex, coping with larger sizes of paper and capable of printing multiple colours in quick succession on both sides of the paper. Bartholomew's printing capabilities increased radically.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that earlier print runs were in the region of 500 copies an hour, in one colour, but towards the end of the 20th century this had risen to more like 5,000 copies an hour, in four colours.

Expressed in a different way, one source suggests that Bartholomew's print run in the Edwardian period might be seven million items per year, by 1975, this had risen to over a hundred million. (Information taken from 'Bartholomew 150 years', by L Gardiner (Edinburgh, 1976).

The difficulties of printing

Printing was an extremely tricky operation.

Printing the different colours on a half-inch map, for example, was no easy task. Heat and humidity affected the paper by making it expand and contract and the printing process itself stretched and warped the paper.

This could create major difficulties when it came to the register — making sure every tint was inside its contour line — particularly when you consider that each colour was once printed one by one.

In fact, the effects of humidity could be so bad that Bartholomew took the step of installing their own dehumidifying plant. Part of the process involved boring a very deep hole inside the Duncan Street premises, to access the cool water that flowed beneath the building.

Different types of paper and even different types of ink could all produce idiosyncratic results. The printers needed to have a keen sense of all of these variables in order to ensure consistent results.


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