Vintage Film Shows How the Oxford English Dictionary Was Made in 1925

There was lots of money to be made at the end of the 19th century and Dudley Docker made his share of it. He was what they called a “baron of industry” at a time when manufacturing was exploding in Britain. Docker made his fortune in paint, motorcycles, arms manufacturing, railways, and banking. He was an industrial booster, acting as one of the three major financiers behind Ernest Shackleton’s Trans-Antarctic Expedition. In 1916, he founded a major association of British industry to promote business interests.

A charming result of that work is a recently digitized film made in 1925 to demonstrate the work inside Oxford University Press. For book arts lovers, this is a fascinating peek into the early days of mechanized printing.

Above we watch a worker use a mould to make lead type, hundreds of them, by pouring the molten lead in at the top, making a quick upward motion and releasing the quickly dried type. A separate team of workers then sets up monotype composing machines, and we watch as men demonstrate their use.

The film follows the process of printing a run of Oxford English Dictionaries. Books were bound by gender-divided teams: A room of women labored in the “girls” bindery section while men bound books in their own separate room. We see the sewing, cutting and the fascinating process of gilding the page edges.

In our digital age, the old analog processes take on a new, deeper significance. This film presents a terrific 18-minute tutorial on one of the greatest achievements of the modern age: printing mass quantities of bound books.

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Kate Rix writes about education and digital media. Follow her on Twitter.

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