The Printers’ Devil was a term used for a printshop-based skivvy. Traditionally, male, he would perform a number of tasks for the master printer such as fetching type, mixing inks and all number of prepartory tasks.
This role was populated before the age of machine presses and the arrival of the Industrial Revolution.
The curious name is derived from a number of sources. Some say it dates back to when the printing press was held up as an instrument of the devil by the ancient church. The written word was seen as a tool of the occult and a method of witchcraft and sorcery. The business partner of the inventor of the printing press (as we know it), Johann Gutenberg, Johann Fust sold several of Gutenberg’s bibles to King Louis XI of France and his court officials. The officials were led to believe that these would be handwritten as they were unfamiliar with tyesetting. When it was discovered that individual letters were identical in appearance, Fust was accused of sorcery. Some passages were said to have been printed in blood because of the red text. Fust was summarily imprisoned but later freed after the bibles’ origins were revealed. Although many still believed he was in league with Satan, thus the phrase he was known as the Printers’ Devil. Hence the most interesting source of the name.
Another reason for the coining of the name is less interesting but easier to swallow. Printers’ Devil moniker simply came into being because of the appearance of the apprentice when splattered in ink at the end of his shift.
The ancient typeset was said to attract devilish mischief as it was said that each print shop had its own spirit that would move text around and upset ink pots.
It’s a fascinating little story to apply to the industry now, were we’re all far less superstitious and would look very silly if we blamed our typos on ghosts.