Women Printers in the 20th Century

Richard Kennedy. Virginia Woolf Setting Type: ink and graphite drawing
Richard Kennedy. Virginia Woolf Setting Type: ink and graphite drawing

The fourth and final installment in our Women in Printing History.

To round out our discussion of Women in Printing History, let’s take a look at a woman better known for her writing than for her printing. What started for her and her husband as a hobby turned into a fulltime publishing business. This Saturday, March 28, marks the 79th anniversary of her death.

Virginia Woolf was born on January 25, 1882. After the death of her mother, Virginia experienced her first mental breakdown. She was only 13 years old. Two years later, her half-sister and a mother figure to her, passed. Ten years later, Virginia’s father, who encouraged her to begin writing professionally, passed away, and she once again suffered a mental breakdown.

Woolf was troubled by her mental illness throughout her life. These mental challenges, incidentally, were instrumental in her becoming a typesetter and printer.

The Founding of Hogarth Press

Virginia married Leonard Woolf in 1912. Leonard was a journalist, publicist, and writer on political topics. Early in March 1915, the couple moved to Hogarth House in Paradise Road.

In 1913, Virginia completed her first novel, The Voyage Out. The writing of this book, as with each book she wrote, left her in a state of extreme physical, mental, and nervous exhaustion. In September 1913, she attempted to take her own life. By the summer of 1914, she appeared to have fully recovered from her depression. In February 1915, however, there was another, more violent recurrence of the illness.

From the beginning of their marriage, Leonard was concerned about Virginia’s mental peace. While looking for ways to keep her mind occupied, the two started talking about typesetting and printing. Leonard felt the manual labor would give her something to occupy her mind when she wasn’t writing.

In 1916, the couple went so far as to inquire about classes at Saint Bride Foundation Institute Printing School. They were turned down because the courses offered by the school were only open to trade union apprentices.

Then, on the afternoon of March 23, 1917, Leonard and Virginia were walking down Farringdon Road in London when they passed the Excelsior Printing Supply Company. The company’s window display caught their attention. In his autobiography, Leonard described how they felt. “Nearly all the implements of printing are materially attractive, and we stared through the window at them rather like two hungry children gazing at buns and cakes in a baker shop window.”

Virginia Woolf

Once inside the supply company, the two spoke with a sales assistant in brown overalls. In true print sales fashion, the sales rep convinced them that they didn’t need any classes. All they needed was a 16-page booklet, which had all the information they needed to get started in the industry.

Within no time at all, and for less than £20, the Woolfs became the proud owners of a small hand-printing press, chases, cases with type and all the necessary implements needed to begin their career in the printing industry.

On the afternoon of April 24, 1917, Virginia and Leonard took delivery of the hand press. Later that day, Virginia wrote to her sister, “We unpacked it with enormous excitement, finally with Nelly’s help carried it into the drawing-room, set it on its stand, and discovered that it was smashed in half.” The parts needed to fix the press arrived several weeks later.

Hobby to Publishing Business

Once the press was fixed, the Woolfs became enamored with typesetting and the printing process. “We get so absorbed we can’t stop; I see that real printing will devour one’s entire life,’ Virginia Woolf wrote to her sister.

It didn’t take long for the press to turn from a hobby into a full-time business.

After a month of experimenting with setting type, inking woodblocks, and pulling impressions, the Woolfs felt confident enough to start printing.

Two Stories: Virginia Woolf and L.S. Woolf; Hogarth PressTheir first publication was a 31-page pamphlet entitled Two Stories. It was typeset, printed, stitched and bound by Leonard and Virginia. The booklet contained four woodcuts by the artist Dora Carrington. They made 150 copies, most of which were sold to friends and acquaintances.

They both enjoyed printing their first book. Virginia said she found the printing process “exciting, soothing, ennobling, and satisfying.” In addition to the gratifying work, sales were also successful. They sold 134 copies of the 150 run.

The act of typesetting itself had a strong influence on Virginia’s writing. In her unpublished essay “How Should One Read a Book?” she writes,

“Try to understand what a writer is doing. Think of a book as a very dangerous and exciting game, which it takes two to play at. Books are not turned out of moulds like bricks. Books are made of tiny little words, which a writer shapes, often with great difficulty, into sentences of different lengths, placing one on top of another, never taking his eye off them, sometimes building them quite quickly, at other times knocking them down in despair, and beginning all over again.”

Anyone who has set type by hand will recognize the process of typesetting, which is apparent within these words. Virginia Woolf biographer Hermione Lee, when referring to this passage, concludes that “The writer is imagined as a kind of mental compositor, and the reader is invited to think of the book not as a fixed object, but as a process—something like the process that goes into typesetting.”

Hogarth Press Grows

Virginia continues to write and set type while Leonard continues to print on the hand press. Hogarth Press allows the Woolfs to self-publish their work free from frustrating editors and free from censorship.

Eventually, they bought a larger printing press and moved into a more prominent place. Soon they needed assistants and managers, and the business prospered.

In the following years, in addition to publishing Virginia’s works, they print for authors such as T.S. Eliot and Gertrude Stein. They were the first to publish the complete works of Sigmund Freud in English.

In 1938, Virginia sold her share of the business. A few years later, in 1941, she fell into a depression, much like the ones she had experienced in her earlier days. On March 28, 1941, Virginia left her house and took a walk by the river Ouse. She never returned. It was not until April 19, that the Associated Press announced to the public “Mrs. Woolf’s Body Found,” and confirmed she had drowned herself.

The Hogarth Press continued in operation until 1946.

We hope you have enjoyed these glimpses into the lives of women printers throughout the centuries. This four-part series covered just a small number of women who have had an impact on the printing industry.

To keep up with the women involved in the industry today follow the #printherstory and the Girls Who Print group on LinkedIn and on Facebook. You will also find the Girls Who Print website full of valuable information.