As you can see, this book is not in Braille, as we might expect today, but in Roman type—specifically, an alphabet known as Boston line type. While Braille was developed in the mid-1820s, it did not reach the United States until 1860, and it grew to popularity slowly, facing stiff competition from several other tactile alphabets along the way.
Examples of prototype raised lettering date back to 1517, when Spanish scribe Francisco Lucas “contrived a set of letters carved on thin tablets of wood.” However, a reliable system of printing did not come about until the end of the 18th century. The first embossed books were printed in 1784 by Valentin Haüy (founder of the first school for the blind) using “a printing method devised for embossing books with raised letters of the alphabet using a cylindrical press, dampened paper, and raised type.” Haüy hoped that his method would allow students at his Royal Institution for the Young Blind to produce their own books, using a special compositing device to set the type.
Like Haüy, producers of books for the blind in the United States tended to favor Roman-letter based systems, believing that they would isolate blind readers from the world less. An early forerunner was James Gall’s lettering system, which was initially praised for its innovative use of triangular letterforms—whose shapes were easier to distinguish by touch—over circular ones, but derided when Gall later “committed the error of introducing capitals.” Other major tactile alphabet systems included New York point (a dot-based alphabet often used for musical notation as well as text), Moon type (heavily-simplified Roman type characters), and Boston Line type, of which our King Lear is an example.
examples of embossed type; “Howe” is the “Boston line type” used to print Lear (Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913, via Wikimedia Commons)
Boston line type (or Boston line letter) was a modification of Gall’s system developed by Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe. Howe stripped away the contentious capital letters of Gall’s alphabet, and rounded the letterforms down so that they bore a closer resemblance to Roman type.
Howe was also the founder of the Perkins School for the Blind in Massachusetts, where in 1835 he began to print books in his Boston line type. Boston line type eventually came to dominate tactile printing in the United States in the mid-19th century. Its success was aided greatly by Howe’s collaboration with inventor Stephen P. Ruggles.
The Ruggles Press
Ruggles is probably best known today as the inventor of several early platen job presses. In 1835, Ruggles worked with Howe to set up the Perkins School’s first press, then sought more efficient methods of printing raised type. Having first studied the sizing and spacing of the type, he then turned to the printing itself:
Having prepared the type, he now commenced printing, and after many trials and experiments with the strongest printing-presses in use, and after breaking two of them without succeeding in obtaining such an impression as he required, he was obliged to invent and build a more powerful press of an entirely new construction. This new press he so contrived that it could be worked by the blind; and, while it gave a pressure of three hundred tons at each impression, would at the same time throw off work at the rate of eighteen sheets per minute, thus working about as fast as the ordinary newspaper power-presses.
After succeeding in the construction, both of his type and press, a new and unexpected difficulty presented itself.
There was no paper to be found properly adapted for the purpose of this kind of printing or embossing. That which was hard enough would break through, and be rough, when embossed or printed; and that which was flexible enough not to crack or break through would flatten down when pressed upon by the fingers of the reader. However, after many experiments on the manufacture of paper with gums, resins, and gelatine, he produced a paper stiff and hard, like parchment, that would receive a sharp and distinct impression that would stand firm and unyielding when pressed by the fingers, and that would not break or crack under the pressure of the press.
Ruggles continued to develop new and better technology for raised-type presses (including an inexpensive method for stereotyping the embossed plates), and later contributed his expertise to an improved press for the American Publishing House for the Blind, as reported in The Scientific American in 1864.
Ruggles press (Scientific American, 1864)
The Ruggles press arrived at the American Publishing House in late 1865, and within a year, had produced the publishing house’s first book, Fables and Stories for Children. It remained the printing house’s main press until the 1880s (and was used until the 1920s), and it is very likely that our King Lear was produced on this very Ruggles press.
Even with innovations by Ruggles, Howe, and others, printing books for the blind remained an area of high demand but limited supply through the turn of the century. The difficulties are elaborated in a profile of the New York Free Circulating Library for the Blind from 1902:
It is almost impossible for a blind person to be supplied with an abundance of good reading matter from private sources. An ordinary volume printed in the raised type of the blind costs from $3 to $4.50. The books are naturally very bulky, though not heavy, considering their size. One of Shakespeare’s plays fills a book quite as large as a standard dictionary. The letters can be printed only on one side, and they take up far more room than ordinary printing.
King Lear is a perfect example of this. Though it does look “quite as large as a standard dictionary,” it is surprisingly lightweight, and has just over 100 leaves.
the lower edge of King Lear reveals its bulk
Here’s a closer shot of the text:
Act 1, scene 4 (fol. 17r)
The back of the leaf shows the imprint of the type:
the bite of the type on the verso of the leaf
By the time King Lear was printed in 1871, popular opinion was already beginning to turn away from Boston line and other Roman types. Despite early hopes, they proved to be difficult for blind children to learn, and next to impossible for readers who had gone blind as adults. In the same year that Lear was published, the New York point system was officially endorsed at a meeting of the American Association for Instructors of the Blind. New York point and braille quickly became the frontrunners of the tactile alphabet field. The braille typewriter was developed in 1892, and the kleidograph, for printing New York point, in 1894. While the New York point versus braille debate would continue for several more decades, Roman type’s era was past.