Frans A. Janssen, ed., The Earliest Dutch Imposition Manual: A Facsimile of the Manuscript “Overslag-Boek”

Cover page of The Earliest Dutch Imposition Manual: A Facsimile of the Manuscript “Overslag-Boek” by Joannes Josephus Balthazar Vanderstraelen

Frans A. Janssen, ed. The Earliest Dutch Imposition Manual: A Facsimile of the Manuscript “Overslag-Boek” by Joannes Josephus Balthazar Vanderstraelen. New York: The Grolier Club, 2014. xl, 162p., ill. ISBN 9781605830537. US $75 (hardback).

“Until well into the 19th century typographical craftsmanship was passed down from generation to generation in the workshops where printing was practised, in the printing houses,” argued Frans A. Janssen in his monumental 1982 edition of David Wardenaar’s Beschrijving der Boekdrukkunst (1801), the oldest Dutch printer’s manual. Apprentice typographers learned the trade on the job; instruction manuals were wasted on them. That such books were made all the same is owing to “the relative small number of the most educated and ambitious master printers and overseers” (Janssen, ed. Wardenaar, 11). One such man was Joannes Josephus Balthazar Vanderstraelen from Antwerp who, in 1784–5, wrote an instruction manual explaining how to place type for different formats into the forme in the correct manner. In 2006 the Grolier Club managed to acquire the manuscript containing Vanderstraelen’s “Overslag-Boek.” Eugene S. Flamm, president of the Club from 2010–14 and author of the foreword to this facsimile, is understandably proud of the acquisition and of the present edition by Janssen – the expert par excellence in the field of typesetting and printing in the Low Countries.

            This bound edition was beautifully designed by Jerry Kelly. The facsimile proper is preceded by Flamm’s foreword (vii) and an introduction by Janssen (ix–xxiii), as well as an “Appendix with Description of the Manuscript and Editorial Note” (xxiv), bibliography (xxv–xxvii), translation of certain pages of the manual (xxix–xxxii), indices (xxxiii–xxxiv) and information on the manual’s contents (xxxv–xxxix). The indices consist of two glossaries, one Dutch–English and the other English–Dutch, while the “Contents of the Imposition Manual” section provides for every page of the facsimile a bilingual overview. Throughout, translation from the Dutch was in the very capable hands of Cis van Heertum. The edition is therefore easily accessible to an international audience who might otherwise struggle with Vanderstraelen’s eighteenth-century Dutch.

            The introduction is rich in content. Janssen first patiently explains what imposition is, then provides a brief history of imposition manuals, discusses the author and describes in detail Vanderstraelen’s manual. Thanks to Janssen’s expertise and meticulousness, the introduction provides not only an introduction to this facsimile, but also to the practice of typesetting in the hand-press period and to surviving instruction manuals from this era. And because Janssen compares Vanderstraelen’s “Overslag-Boek” in such an expert way with other surviving imposition manuals, he is able to judge, rightly, that it is “alike in being different”­­­­­­­ (xxiii).

            Of Joannes Josephus Balthazar Vanderstraelen, the author of the present “Overslag-Boek,” little is known. He may have been employed by the Antwerp publisher Hubertus Bincken. On the basis of manuscripts by Vanderstraelen on the history of arithmetic preserved in the Erfgoedbibliotheek Hendrik Conscience in Antwerp, Janssen describes him as “an aficionado and hobbyist” (xvii). I am inclined to agree with these qualifications also on account of the pages preceding Vanderstraelen’s typesetting instruction (4–8), upon which Janssen offers little comment. By pasting in the portrait of Franciscus Rosart, a Brussels punch-cutter, as well as by providing a brief history of writing (copied largely from the 1784 Ghent edition of De historie van Belgis, by the sixteenth-century Flemish historian Marcus van Vaernewyck), Vanderstraelen emphatically places typesetting in an historical context, thus advancing the practice as an important feature of literacy and of civilisation more generally.

            This fine edition deserves a permanent place in the literature of typesetting practices in the Low Countries. The world of book history should be grateful to the Grolier Club and especially to Frans Janssen for its publication.

Ad Leerintveld, National Library of the Netherlands (trans. Nynke Leistra)