Books of a New Era


Oh no, did machines take jobs?! Yes and no. The mechanical printing press needed a lot of help, and so it created entirely new types of jobs, such as pressmen and printers’ devils. Plus, handwritten books were still the norm for local records and personal texts— just look at Autos de la Capellanía de Doña Maria del Campo!

By the 1600s, book makers had established a standard for publishing all manner of literary works. Gutenberg’s invention of the mechanical moving-type press made books easier and cheaper to make. Rather than copy a text word-for-word by hand, the mechanical press produced copies page by page with a rotating lever. A printman simply arranged his type pieces, laid the paper, and rolled it under a compressive wood frame. Each page could be inked and hung to dry in a few minutes, a breeze compared to hours of painstaking handwriting. Not to mention, the materials themselves were cost-effective. The type pieces were reusable, and the printing press worked with rag-pulp paper rather than expensive animal-skin parchment.

With this new invention and a little time, printers developed an efficient, standardized system to meet demands for these affordable books. Yes, gone were the days of neglected title pages in the exploratory era of incunabula. This post-1500 era of printing produced books that looked much like modern ones, with illustrative title pages, publishing emblems, and orderly headers. These features, though ordinary to a reader today, distinguish books printed after 1500 from incunabula, or books printed prior to 1500.

Title pages and emblems underscored the pride and marketing of the now-established printhouses, giving them credit for creation alongside the book’s author. Further, standardized headers and footers suggest these printhouses had become more comfortable and structured in the mass production of printed materials, as increasing demand required larger and larger numbers of copies. Ultimately, the books of this era were speedier to make and quite stylish in their production!


With a standardized, cheaper printing process, books became more readily available and served integral roles in government, religion, school, and public culture. In the 1600s, literacy rates increased across the globe. Wealthy European families paid private tutors to give their children a classical education in Greek plays and Latin philosophy— where reading works like Orationum Marci Tullii Ciceronis might give a German schoolchild a leg up in class —and governments funded free primary level education for poor citizens. These literate youth grew into literate, book-hungry adults. Print houses made copy after copy of The Canterbury Tales for a nice laugh in England and of S. Antonio de Padua for religious reflection and learning in Spain. Local governments kept their records of business in great tomes like Autos de la Capellanía de Doña Maria del Campo in Mexico. Tabloid-like ‘broadsides’ and decrees like His Maiesties answer to the XIX propositions of both houses of Parliament stoked conversations in London about current events.