Joseph Moxon and his Mechanick Exercises

The author of the essential guide to running your seventeenth century printing house.

The author of the essential guide to running your seventeenth century printing house.

When we decided to construct Press Genepy, we had two essential books to get hold of before we even started. Those were firstly, The Common Press by Clinton Sisson and Elizabeth M. Harris, previously mentioned on this blog and published in 1978. The other title was published in 1683: Mechanick Exercises on the Whole Art of Printing, by Joseph Moxon. Luckily we didn’t have to shell out £100s to get an original, since Dover Publications had produced an edition in the late 1970s. We obtained a copy via the second hand market, knowing what an invaluable asset this scruffy paperback was to our project.
Joseph Moxon (1627-1691)was one of those inquiring minds of the seventeenth century, who was passionately interested in all kinds of trades. His official business was globe making, in which capacity he served King Charles ll. He published another book called The Doctrine of Handyworks, in which all building trades were discussed. Yet he had trained as a printer under his father James Moxon and had even, as a youngster, been obliged to escape to Holland with his father before the English Civil War broke out, because James had printed seditious pamphlets, forbidden by Charles I.
After the Restoration such matters were glossed over, and Joseph settled down to trade in London. He advertised as a maker of globes and mathematical instruments, but continued to print, specialising in handbooks and manuals.
The first “Doctrine of Handyworks” which he published covered trades such as joinery, turning and other building trades. “Mechanick Exercises” was conceived as a second volume of the same work and although it pertains to printing, it ranges over the many trades involved in book production: from the building of the press, to cutting and casting of type, the compositor’s art, the actual printing itself of course and then the “Warehouse Keeper’s Office” where the books were collated. Finally, an appendix gives a glimpse into the life of the printing house; how they clubbed together to pay in money, were fined for various offences, and how the annual feast was organised. Through the book, Moxon’s personality comes through as he clearly enjoys describing in fine detail the manual processes and he must have tried all of them since the tips come thick and fast.
Joseph Moxon was never known as a fine printer in the same way as someone like Christopher Plantin in Antwerp, yet his contribution to the history of printing, if only he could have known, was highly important, and his work was used by succeeding generations of printers for long years afterwards, until the end of the era of the wooden press.
A title worth its weight in gold for someone wishing to build a replica common press, and yet in another way we actually did have to build the press in order to understand some of the processes described in the book.
The details given here of Moxon’s life are taken from the introduction to the Dover edition, which itself was a reprinting of an OUP edition from 1958, edited by Herbert David and Harry Carter.

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