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Printer's Devil (a.k.a. Little Red Devil) Carving

For centuries, apprentice printers were known as 'printer's devils'* and 3D images like this one were commonly used to mark the location of printing workshops.

This particular example resides (or, more accurately, squats) on a scrolled bracket attached to the corner post of number 33 Stonegate (York, England). It was probably installed during the 17th or early 18th century** to mark the location*** of (and to promote the business and products of) a printer's workshop located in Coffee Yard.

The carving is currently painted bright red all over, except for the eyes (which are painted white) and the horns, beard, hooves and pupils of the eyes (all of which are painted black). A close inspection will reveal two things:

  1. This particular Devil is naked. (Yes, if you look closely, you CAN see his personal bits - but not in my discrete photograph!)
  2. He appears to be 'tethered' to the post via a carved black-painted chain around his midriff.

One possible reason for him being naked is that it is hot in hell, so clothes aren't really necessary.

With regards the chain, this probably symbolises the young apprentice's legally binding obligation (usually as a result of indenture) to serve his 'master' for a set period of time. In other words, the apprentice is metaphorically chained to his duty and his master, often for many years. If this explanation sounds a bit dull, some writers have suggested a more light-hearted explanation: mistakes made during the typesetting / printing process were often blamed on imps, sprites and other devilish characters, so the chain could be an attempt to stop this little devil mischievously jumbling-up the letters in the nearby print works. (Now you have a new excuse when someone criticises your spelling: the Devil did it!)

Footnotes / Sources

* The following definition for 'Devil' appears on page 373 of "'Mechanick Exercises: Or, the Doctrine of Handy Works Applied to the Art of Printing'. The Second Volume By Joseph Moxon, Member of the Royal Society, and Hydrographer to the King's Most Excellent Majesty. LONDON. Printed for Joseph Moxon on the West-side of Fleet-ditch, at the Sign of Atlas. 1683.'

"The Pressman sometimes has a Week-Boy to Take Sheets, as they are Printed off the Tympan: These Boys do in a Printing-House, commonly black and Dawb themselves; whence the Workmen do Jocosely call them Devils; and sometimes Spirits, and sometimes Flies."

An article entitled 'The Art and Mystery of Printing Emblematically Displayed' in issue number 147 of the Grub Street Journal (published in London on October 26th, 1732) uses the precise term 'Printer's Devils':

"As I was going the other day into Lincoln's inn, under the great gate-way, I met several lads and boys of different sizes, loaded most of them with great bundles of news-papers, led by a lusty fellow, who turned round and stopped them in the passage. They were all exceedingly black and dirty; and made so very odd a figure, that I could not but stop myself to gaze upon them. Some that lagged behind and brought up the rear, I saw came out of the Stamp office: from whence I rightly inferred, that they were Printers Devils, carrying from thence the returns of unsold newspapers, after the stamps had been cut off."

** With regards the history of printing in Coffee Yard, York, there is a clue in the autobiography entitled 'The life of Mr. Thomas Gent, printer, of York' (which was written in 1746 when Mr Gent was 53 years old):

"the house I was leaving was advertised to be let, in the public newspaper, which I purchased of Thomas Wilson, baker, in Stonegate. It was in the York Courant,” number 868, printed for Caesar Ward, bookseller, dated Tuesday, June 1, 1742, viz.
"to be LETT,
"The house where Mr. Thomas Gent, printer, now lives, in Coffee Yard, York, to be entered on at Martinmas next: inquire of Mr. Bernard Awmonds, grocer, in Castle Gate, York.
"n.b. It hath been a printing office above an hundred years."

This suggests that printing activites were being carried-out in Coffee Yard during the middle of the 17th century.

With regards the age of the Printer's Devil carving, the following quote from page 412 of "History and Description of the Ancient City of York", Volume 2 by William Hargrove (published in York in 1818) suggests that the Printer's Devil carving (or something similar) was in existence in 1728):

a newspaper called "The York Mercury," a very small quarto, was printed prior to 1720, by Grace White, widow, in Coffee Yard, York. The name of this paper seems afterwards to have been altered; for by the file of the York Courant, we learn that in 1728, John White, perhaps a son of the widow, printed a paper, consisting of four quarto pages, price twopence; under the present name, "at the sign of the Printing Press, in Stonegate".

*** For a brief explanation of why 3D carvings like this one were used, see the 'Historical notes' at Minerva 3D Bookshop Sign.

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Printer's Devil (a.k.a. Little Red Devil) Carving
Corner of Stonegate and Coffee Yard

Latitude: 53.961073184784
Longitude: -1.082984449091

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