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History of type

The first Uruguayan printing press

The compelling history and impressive prints of the earliest press in the Uruguayan territory.

Uruguay’s history of printing dates back only two hundred years. The first printing press, La Real Imprenta de la Estrella del Sur, which operated in the current territory of Uruguay was introduced in the year 1807 as a result of the English occupation. When the press arrived, a bilingual weekly, La Estrella del Sur or The Southern Star, began its run…

1. The Southern Star Heading (1807)

The Southern Star appeared weekly on Saturdays, with its first issue hitting the streets on May 23, 1807. It was a large publication, sizing in at 24cm×38cm or 9.5”×15” (half page of Crown format), composed in 4 columns. Although the layout was similar to The Times, its bilingual composition was atypical.

The paper was of good quality, and it is possible to see the manufacturer’s brand “B 1805.” According to Isidoro de María (1887), La Real Imprenta de La Estrella del Sur had few boxes of old mobile type, some of them arranged with nails. It is unknown if the letter ‘Ñ’ was brought as part of the original type collection or if it was cut in situ.

The press arrived half by accident and half to satisfy foreign needs. The objective of this weekly was to show the inability of the Spanish occupation when governing its colonies in comparison with the “honest and just” English system with its free trade. So much that in addition to being distributed in Montevideo, La Estrella del Sur was sent to Buenos Aires, much to the dismay of the authorities in that city.

Besides the propagandistic character, the publication dealt with a wide variety of topics: proclamations, mandates, letters, local and international news, stories, poems, and an impressive number of notices and publications.

2. Inside pages of The Southern Star (1807)

The Southern Star was short-lived with only 7 publications. The final copy was printed on July 4, 1807. On July 11, an Extra was printed announcing the cessation of hostilities and a pact between England and Spain. The printing press was dismantled and taken to Buenos Aires on September 29.

3. Extra (1807)

Uruguay had to wait 3 years to have a printing press again. The events in Rio de la Plata convinced Princess Carlota Joaquina de Borbón, sister of Fernando VII, King of Spain, to send a printing press from Rio de Janeiro to the city of Montevideo. The goal was to annul the revolutionary preaching of the May movement in Buenos Aires. The press arrived in September 1810 and was settled in El Cabildo, the public building that was used as the government house during the colonial times of the Viceroyalty of the River Plate. This printing press, officially called “Imprenta de la ciudad de Montevideo,” was popularly known as “La Carlota.”

The press of 30cmx40cm or 12”x16” was used immediately to publish an important weekly newspaper, La Gazeta de Montevideo, which ran until 1814 at the end of Spanish rule in Rio de la Plata. Las Gazetas were sold at a moderate price, accessible to all classes of the city. The price of each issue depended on the number of pages: 4 pages cost 1 Real. There was also the possibility of subscribing on a quarterly basis for 60 Reales.

José Varela, a Spanish typographer sent from Rio de Janeiro, set up La Carlota in a room on the lower floor of El Cabildo. On October 8, 1810, the first leaflet of La Gazeta was published, printed on half a sheet of yellowish paper, common at the time. In addition to expressing gratitude to the princess, it was announced that the purpose of the weekly was to “cement public opinion.”

On October 13, the first issue of La Gazeta de Montevideo appeared at a size of 10cm×16cm or 4”×6.3”, the first issue of which had an illustration printed on the cover: The coat of arms of the city of Montevideo—with dejected English flags. The fourteen issues published covered European wars, official communications, and official facts in America.

4. Gazeta de Montevideo (1810)

In terms of printing, the quantities were surprisingly high—between 600 and 800 copies. For context, the most important Spanish newspapers of the time printed only 500 copies. These numbers are more impressive considering the restricted territorial circulation and small population of approximately 10,000 inhabitants.

This factor is even more relevant if one takes into account that the periodicity changed with the news, so that the number varied from 4 to 12 monthly publications. It is also interesting to mention that La Gazeta had a high percentage of copies sold: The range varied from 62% to 81%.

La Imprenta de la Caridad began its workings in 1822 and finished production in 1855. It was created by the most progressive men of La Hermandad de la Caridad: A Catholic brotherhood founded in 1775. It was sponsored and guarded both by the River Plate Catholic Church and by the monarchical political authority centered on El Cabido de Montevideo, but in turn dependent on the government of the new Viceroyalty of el Río de la Plata, created in 1776.

This Brotherhood launched the creation of the first series of establecimientos de la caridad or “charitable establishments” around social and public health care. These included the Hospital de Caridad, created in 1788 as the first civil hospital in Montevideo for the poor and homeless, raised with the support of the Cabildo; the House of Foundlings, inaugurated in 1818 as the first assistance home for children; La imprenta de la Caridad, to save expenses, generate monetary resources in turn, and create job-learning opportunities for poor adolescents.

All this activity involved not only Catholic religiosity but also a complex socio-economic and political fabric, given that the Brotherhood of Charity crossed through four convulsive historical periods: the English Invasions, the Artiguista Revolution, the Luso-Brazilian Invasion and the birth of civil wars.

In the year 1817, during the beginning of the Luso-Brazilian domination, Colonel Carlos Federico Lecor promoted the idea of hosting a lottery that would financially support the Hospital de la Caridad. The lottery needed cards printed, and thus began the close link between the charity project and the printing press.

The high printing costs were paid by the hospital: 764 pesos paid to the printer of El Cabildo, more commonly known as La Carlota. In 1822, Joaquín de la Sagra y Periz was resolved to acquire a printing press for the hospital itself in an effort both to minimize the excessive cost involved in paying third parties and to exploit the benefits of having a typographic workshop in operation. The printing press would move away from political propaganda, towards cultural content.

On August 9, 1822, a commission was created to buy a printing press. After some evaluation, the commission informed the Brotherhood that Francisco de Paula Perez had two presses: One of US origin, bought from the Chilean caudillo Jose Miguel Carrera, and another that was built in Montevideo by the carpenter Carlos Campus and the blacksmith Mariano Basigaluz. The commission suggested buying both, guaranteeing a wider production than just lottery tickets. On November 26, 1822, they purchased the presses and set them up in the hospital.

La Imprenta de la Caridad had the first printing press built on Uruguayan soil. We know that in Mexico (1819) Don Alejandro Valdez made a manuscript translation from French to Spanish of what would be the first Mexican and oldest American printing press manual, which included three-dimensional illustrations detailing every structure and element that made up the furniture of a typographical office. The illustrations gave a clear idea of the proportions of each piece of the press, their location, and function.

Four months of preparations preceded the installation of the complete office, from August 9 to December 1822. When it was ready, they convened the opening for the whole fraternity of the Brotherhood, the excited members of which witnessed and participated in the first printing: lottery tickets.

On December 15, the accounting records note payment from Mr. José Rosendo Ayllón for letterforms and a coat of arms. The Brothers José Rosendo and Valentín Ayllón came from Alto Perú, where José was a type founder and Valentín a watchmaker. Considering that the printing press in Peru had a history dating back to 1584, it is believed that these brothers were the first to cut type in the Uruguayan territory.

5. Regulation of La Imprenta de la Caridad de Montevideo (1826)

In 1826, the Regulation of La Imprenta de la Caridad de Montevideo was published. It was intended to become the most important financial input for the Brotherhood. The printing developed a broad editorial production of more than 170 works, most of which were books. Among these is one of the first illustrated books, Biblioteca Dramática (1837).

6. El Trovador by Juan Manuel Besnes e Irigoyen. Lithography (1837)

In 1838, the first Uruguayan catalog was printed. It included every typeface and image that the workshop possessed. The purpose of this catalog was not to sell type but rather to show what was possible through printing. The publication had a format of 15×21cm or 6”×8.3” and contained 180 pages without pagination.

7. Borders, bigotes and ornaments from the catalog of la Imprenta de La Caridad (1838)

Between publications, religious subjects occupied a great part of the press’s production. One of the most notable religious works was the Elogio del Santísimo Padre Pio Séptimo Pontífice Máximo, which contained mostly typographical compositions. It possessed some fillets of single, continuous lines on the inside pages, with geometric figures on the cover. The cover was designed in a transitional Roman typeface, presented in 5 different bodies and three italics; the text justification is centered with open line spacing. The book has a format of 10.4cm×14.8cm or 4”×5.8” and ran 72 pages.

8. Elogio del Santísimo Padre Pio Séptimo Pontífice Máximo (1826)

On December 19, 1828, a statement of political nature was printed—linked to the main visual symbol of national identity: It described the design of the first national flag. Drafted by Joaquín Suarez and Antolín Busó, the decree was addressed to not only national authorities but also the people as a whole. The decree consists of a single article in which it is stated that the national flag would be white and have nine blue stripes, leaving in the upper left corner a space to incorporate a sun.

9. Decree (1828)

From descriptions of their printed matter, we can deduce the compositional standards at La Imprenta de la Caridad.

To begin, and fulfilling a functional role, we observe the arrangement of typographic ornaments used as individual decorative elements or placed linearly, forming guards. The typologies present in the catalog and used in the pieces include abstract geometric elements (crosses, lines, fillets) as well as figurative elements (floral, vegetable, hands).

Fulfilling a descriptive role and giving an added value to the piece, several elements stand inseparable from the text. The composer used images at the start of each chapter to introduce the texts’ primary theme.

5. Regulation of La Imprenta de la Caridad de Montevideo (1826)

Next, type was composed in large bodies—decorative and ornamental, these fulfill the function of opening. Presented in uppercase, these blocks of text are of greater body and weight. Fulfilling a function as separators, they organize the contents and provide a rest before the main text. For the text, small Garalde faces were used.

The image, according to the ancient etymology, should be related to the root imitari, meaning to copy. Illustration and ornamentation add value to the old book and help define its identity. The printers, in addition to their focus on the content design, showed interest in the visual aspects of the pages, where the decorative gained an increasingly important role. At the time, images were an expensive addition, and not all workshops had access to a wide range of illustrations; thus, images were often repeated many times.

For this reason, the use of decorative type and typographical compositions evolved. This practice reached large-scale popularity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Designs with many typefaces implied wealth, adding power to the visuals of print.

11. Imprenta Sportman Pando (1962), Tipográfica Moderna (1907)

It is important to consider the technology, as the press allowed such a demonstration. It was printed in this way because it was the first time it could be done. Something similar happens today with screens that display saturated color gradients or animations—designers often use them just because they can.


Gabriel Benderski—The author’s design website
Impresosuy—A colllection of Uruguayan printing artifacts


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