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Words by Michel Wlassikoff

Didot’s stereotype editions

How Didot’s mass production of classic works helped shape the future of printing under the Consulate, Empire, and Restoration periods.
How Didot’s mass production of classic works helped shape the future of printing under the Consulate, Empire, and Restoration periods.
In 1795, Firmin Didot developed the process he called stereotype for printing François Callet’s Tables portatives de logarithmes. At the 1798 Exposition des Produits de l’Industrie, he presented several works produced using this new process. This consists in obtaining an impression of the typographic form, composed of movable characters, by pressing it into plaster or papier-mâché. A lead alloy is then poured into this impression or die to produce a stereotype block (Greek for “solid form”) of the entire composition. The stereotype is very robust and can be used for a long time without deteriorating. This limits the use of movable type, and also provides matrices for other printers. In a foreword to Callet’s book, Firmin Didot explains the reasons behind the development of this technique and the many difficulties he encountered in perfecting it.
“My first idea was to make a number font large enough to preserve all the pages, and print them if necessary; but, on examining this means more seriously, I could not conceal from myself all its disadvantages: the impossibility of moving seven to eight hundred pages of this nature without any accident ever resulting, is demonstrated, at least for those who have some idea of the typographic art. Finally, I thought I’d found a way of avoiding all the inconveniences; it was to keep all the pages, after having made the type immobile, and I set about engraving and casting the figures, having no doubts whatsoever about success. But when I wanted to undertake the last and most important operation, i.e. to weld together so many letters at once, to make a single body, I experienced difficulties and annoyances that were so strange that I was sometimes discouraged. (…) The superiority that my editions must obtain over all those that have been made, is that, in a few years, they will be absolutely free of errors.”
Firmin and his brother Pierre Didot developed these editions to publish small-format works at low cost, further rationalizing the process and giving it a quasi-industrial dimension. Large numbers of copies of the classics were printed under the Consulate and Empire, and under the Restoration, with Didot stereotypes being distributed to other printers and publishers. As Firmin stated in a preface in 1799: “The collection of stereotype editions by Pierre Didot, Firmin Didot offers the public several important advantages: 1°. Great savings on acquisition costs. 2°. Rigorous correction [… ] 3°. The ability to take works in several volumes only volume by volume, and even to choose a particular volume of a work […] This collection (in-18 and in-12 format) will include all known good works in living and dead languages, and will be followed very rapidly. There is, moreover, a particular advantage for entrepreneurs; it is to be able to procure solid plates absolutely conforming to ours, and thus to be within reach of printing all our editions without any embarrassment of type-founding, typesetting, proof-reading, and only to the extent of the output, which avoids any advance on paper and printing.”
This article presents excerpts from:
  • Saint-Réal, Conjuration des Espagnols, Paris, imprimerie et fonderie stéréotypes de Pierre Didot l’aîné et Firmin Didot, 1803;
  • Montaigne, Essais, tome deuxième, Paris, Pierre Didot et Firmin Didot, 1803.
Documents: Estienne school library.

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