MOVABLE TYPE: perhaps nowadays few will know the exact meaning of these two words, but until the middle of the twentieth century a letter was a small piece of lead, and to use it for printing you literally had to move it around, by hand. In the 20th century big machines like the Monotype, equipped with keyboard, were used for typesetting; but until 1900 all type was set by typesetters, by hand. This simple object: a piece of lead with a letter on top, formed the central part of Gutenberg’s invention, back in the middle of the 15th century.
To cast letters Gutenberg and all of the printers and type foundries that followed him used matrices. To make matrices you first had to cut punches, and the punch was the instrument where art and business met. The punches were made of steel — a little softer than today’s steel — that was cut with a sharp steel knife or an engraving tool. But still, to cut a letter on top of a very small piece of steel, and to do so with such precision and consistency required extraordinary skill. Remember the magnifying glass had not yet been invented and even eye glasses were very rare. To create the complete sets of more than a hundred different punches with letters, abbreviations, and other typographical signs that were all of the same size, all of the same design, and all equally pleasing to the eye when viewed en masse — it seems hardly conceivable that people were able to do just that. But they did it, and with results that we use up to this very day. The type designs we call roman are the grandchildren of one of the most beautiful romans ever created — a type created in about 1470 by the Frenchman Nicolaus Jenson, who was then working in Venice.
In the 15th century each printer made (or at least owned) his own type designs. At the end of the century specialist punchcutters started to trade in matrices and later also in type. Type design soon became the job of specialists, and if you look at 15th and early 16th century type you can easily see its development from modest albeit interesting beginnings to it becoming a great art. Many of the great type designs were created before 1550. These designs imitated the most elegant writing of their day, following the letters that were written by great humanists for kings. Scholars like Poggio imitated Carolingian handwriting, mistakenly attributing these manuscripts to antiquity, when in fact they were products of the ninth century.
Until the 18th century and for brief periods in the 19th and early 20th century, books were often decorated with initials and ornaments. The earliest printed books were decorated by hand, like their written ancestors; but soon printers began to use little woodcuts that could be used year after year in thousands of copies.