Printing as poison, printing as cure : work and health in the nineteenth-century printing office and asylum

Daskalova, Mila (2021) Printing as poison, printing as cure : work and health in the nineteenth-century printing office and asylum. Book History, 24 (1). pp. 58-84. ISSN 1529-1499 (

[thumbnail of Daskalova-BH-2021-work-and-health-in-the-nineteenth-century-printing-office-and-asylum]
Text. Filename: Daskalova_BH_2021_work_and_health_in_the_nineteenth_century_printing_office_and_asylum.pdf
Accepted Author Manuscript
License: Strathprints license 1.0

Download (820kB)| Preview


In the nineteenth century, printing transformed from a handicraft into what Patrick Duffy describes as "a capital-intensive industry catering for the needs of the developing industrialized society." This shift inevitably affected the lives of those involved in the production of print, reshaping their professional identity and relationship with work. In this article, I will explore nineteenth-century printers' changing experience of work using the concept of health and its relation to printing. Highlighting the stories of those involved in print production, preserved in their own words or the words of contemporary observers, I will show that industrial capitalism transformed the printing office into a high-pressure, fast-paced work environment that commentators in the press and printers themselves perceived as "unhealthy." At the same time, contemporary mental healthcare offered those who struggled to function in the new contexts opportunities to exercise their trade therapeutically. By mid-century many British and American asylums had acquired printing presses, and printing was increasingly incorporated into their therapeutic regimes as part of the popular moral treatment movement. The case of Alexander Smart, a Scottish printer and poet who was repeatedly institutionalised and who benefited from practising his trade in the Royal Edinburgh Asylum, will allow me to explore nineteenth-century printers' complex relationship with their work, as well as broader shifts in the meaning of work in Victorian society and its functions and uses.