The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XVIII. The Book-Trade, 1557–1625

§ 6. Apprentices

About the year 1577, the number of printers and stationers, journeymen and all, within the city of London was 175, besides a large number of apprentices; and in a report on the printing patents which he drew up in 1582, Christopher Barker, the queen’s printer, stated that there were about threescore journeymen connected with the printing trade alone. He also says that there were twenty-two printing-houses in London, and expresses the opinion that “8 or 10 at the most would suffise for all England, yea and Scotland too.” A not very liberal view, perhaps, but Baker was a patentee. In 1586, the number of master printers had risen to twenty-five, and they had among them a total of fifty-three presses; but, by the Star chamber decree of that year, no further increase in the number of master printers or presses was permitted, and there was little variation in this number, until, under the stress of public affairs in 1640, the restrictions on printing were relaxed, when there was a rapid increase, and, by 1649, there were in London upwards of sixty printing-houses.

But, though the amount of work that could be provided by the presses was thus strictly limited, there was no similar limit to the supply of workmen, and, owing to the masters having taken too many apprentices in past years, the number of journeymen so increased that there was lack of work for them all and consequent discontent and distress. Endeavours were made to remedy this state of matters by limiting the number of apprentices; but, as a more immediate step for relieving the lack of employment, the company, in 1587–8, made certain orders concerning printing, which provided that no apprentice should be employed in composing or working at the press if any competent journeyman wanted work, and that no forms of type should be kept standing to the prejudice of workmen. By these regulations, also, the number of copies of one impression of a book was limited, in ordinary cases, to 1250 or 1500 copies. The effect of this restriction was to supply more work for compositors, inasmuch as the type had to be reset for each impression. The operation of some similar earlier trade regulation may, possibly, explain the existence of such bibliographical puzzles as the appearance in duplicate of the second edition of Tottel’s Miscellany, a book which achieved an immediate popularity. The first edition of this is dated 5 June, 1557, and the enlarged second edition, of which there are two very similar variants, appeared as early as 31 July in the same year. The fact that, in all probability, the second impression of a book would be set up from a copy of the first edition may account for a close typographical similarity of appearance between successive editions, which might easily cause copies of them to be taken for variations of the same edition.

The term of appenticeship varied from seven to eleven years, so arranged that the apprentice should reach at least the age of twenty-four years before the expiration of his term. At the end of his time, his master was bound to make him free of the company “if he have well and truely served”; but, as Arber has remarked, hardly more than one-half of the apprentices ever attained to the freedom of the company. On becoming a freeman, an ambitious young printer would naturally turn his thoughts towards starting in business for himself. As has been seen, the number of master printers was, for a long period, limited to about 25, and the prospect of a young man gaining admission to this small company was very slender. The picturesque tradition of the industrious apprentice marrying his master’s daughter suggests itself in this connection, but, as a matter of fact, it was much more often his master’s widow that he married, and cases are not uncommon of the business and the widow being “taken over” by two printers in succession.