"Gentlemen, Please Remove Your Hats": The Gutenberg Bible

The first substantial printed book in the West is this royal-folio two-volume Bible, comprising nearly 1,300 pages, printed in Mainz on the central Rhine by Johann Gutenberg (ca. 1390s-1468) in the 1450s. It was probably completed between March 1455 and November of that year, when Gutenberg's bankruptcy deprived him of his printing establishment and the fruits of his achievements. The Bible epitomizes Gutenberg's triumph, arguably the greatest achievement of the second millennium. Over possibly twenty or more years, at Mainz and perhaps at Strasbourg, he succeeded in developing printing from movable type in the West. His achievement had several crucial components. He devised a means of creating and reproducing endlessly interchangeable letters; developed an oil-based ink, still luminously black after more than 550 years, which would adhere to the metal type and transfer to paper or vellum; and devised the means to print the typographic characters with even presswork and alignment of the type sorts. Moreover, certain gatherings of the first impression were printed, probably simultaneously, in black and red, another technological innovation. Most of the book was rubricated (i.e., colored in red) by hand to show chapter headings. Additional decorative elements were often added in accord with regional markets and tastes.

Forty-eight integral copies survive, including eleven on vellum. Perhaps some 180 copies were originally produced, including about forty-five on vellum. The Library's copy, on paper, is the first Gutenberg Bible to come to the United States, in 1847, when it entered the collection of James Lenox, the 19th-century bibliophile whose great library forms one of the bases upon which The New York Public Library was built. Its arrival is the stuff of romantic national folklore. Lenox's European agent issued instructions for New York that the officers at the Customs House were to remove their hats on seeing it: the privilege of viewing a Gutenberg Bible is vouchsafed to few.


Biblia Latina. [Mainz: Johann Gutenberg, ca. 1455].
The New York Public Library, Rare Book Division, from the Lenox Library.


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