Buttons and Demons and Students, Oh My!

If any of you have attended an NRP events recently, you may have noticed a brightly colored buttons with a peculiar but familiar figure on them. The NRP staff have been hard at work preparing these buttons as a fun little promotional giveaway, so the creature it depicts has been on our minds a lot recently. But who or what, you may wonder, is that devilish little fellow? The answer is that he is the Printing Devil, New Rivers Press’s ‘mascot’ of sorts.

Since the 70’s the Printing Devil (our colloquial title for him, more formally known as the “Printer’s Devil”) has made appearances on numerous NRP merchandise. He was a part of our first logo and is currently featured on our Electronic Book Series seal, as well as the banner of this website.

To understand the diminutive demon we have to look into the tradition of the Printer’s Devil and the folk stories surrounding him. The most fanciful of which (and my personal favorite) recounts how an old superstition held that each printing press was haunted by its own resident devil, a trickster and troublemaker, who loved nothing more than to invert type, jumble the spelling of words and just cause misprints in general, (wonder if he’s currently haunting my computer printer…)

Here’s a photo from Stonegate, a historic street in York, England, famous for its printers and bookshops. This is a statue of a Printer’s Devil which sits outside of No. 33, where one such printer used to be.

The Printer’s Devil was a sort of superstitious scapegoat. Anything that went wrong was his fault. But people seem to prefer more practicality when it comes to scapegoats, thus, the printer’s apprentice, thought of as the usual suspect in printing mistakes, came to be known as the Printer’s Devil by association.

There were a few other aspects of the printer’s apprentice that gave merit to his demonic nickname. Back in the good old days of printing, when printers had much more direct interaction with ink than they do now, printer’s fingers would often be stained black, sometimes permanently. An old superstition held that this was a sign that the possessor performed black magic and sorcery.

The classic television show, The Twilight Zone played upon this. In the episode “The Printer’s Devil” from 1963, a printer sells his soul to the devil in order to save his failing newspaper. Things don’t quite work out as pleasantly as he might have hoped…

One more reason which the name Printer’s Devil is fitting for apprentices is because of their association with the press’s hellbox. The hellbox was the unholy resting place for all the tiny little bits of type (the metal ‘letter stamps’ used in traditional printing) after they were used. It was the poor Printer’s Devil who had the mind-numbingly dull task of sorting out the letters and putting them back in their proper job cases. (Thank goodness we don’t have to do that anymore!) Later on, the hellbox was used for the more fitting purpose of holding broken and discarded type, which the Printer’s Devil would then take to the furnace to be melted down and recast.

Nowadays, the term Printer’s Devil, though somewhat archaic, usually only refers to an apprentice in the field. Yes, my co-interns, that means that we are all Printer’s Devils. In that New Rivers Press is a teaching press, whose primary goal is to educate and train students, apprentices if you will, you can see just how fitting our “mascot” is.

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