DeLittle Printing Works
Located on Vine Street, DeLittle’s was founded in 1888 by Robert Duncan DeLittle under the name of the Eboracum Letter Factory. When it finally closed in 1998 it was the last manufacturer of wooden type in Britain. The Company’s catalogues are now sought-after collector’s items.
Robert’s father Frederick had arrived in York in 1873 and started a bookbinding and lithography business. This was in George Hudson Street, and Robert was one of the apprentices.
In 1885, Robert travelled to Australia, where he patented a new design of printing type. Returning to York in 1888, he began manufacturing ‘white letter’ type. This involved cutting out the letters, leaving the rest of the wood in place to carry the printing ink. Robert initially rented premises in the city centre, but at the turn of the century he moved to new premises in Vine Street, Clementhorpe. A contemporary advertisement shows the premises being of two-storey brick construction with a slate roof. The company had now been renamed R. D. DeLittle of Promenade Road, Vine Street.
Letters were cut in well-seasoned, stable hardwoods – notably French Hornbeam and Canadian Maple. Circular saws were used to cut the wood into planks – generally 12 to 18 feet long, four inches wide and one inch thick. The planks were then cut to the appropriate size, and one side was polished. The letters were cut out using a pantograph linked to a stencil. By the time of its eventual closure the company had designed around 300 typefaces, and individual type sizes could be cut from one inch in size up to three feet. The firm had six pantographs in operation. Its staff of 28 included 5 apprentices.
By the 1890s business was flourishing, and in 1899 the company registered its trade mark in order to protect its reputation for high quality products. Products included a wide range of letter-heads, advertisements, posters and theatre bills. These works might include edging and other designs. One poster comprised 16 sheets, printed in 8 colours and, at 8 x 13 feet, it was largest of its kind ever printed.
Despite most potential customers having switched to metal printing plates or computer systems, the firm carried on until 1998. Jim DeLittle, the grandson of the founder, carried on as the sole member of staff until the business closed. Jim was active in York life – a founder member of the Ebor Round Table and a Rotarian, serving as President of the latter in 1999-2000. For many years, Jim was involved with the Dragon Boat Race on the River Ouse. He chaired the Ebor 41 Club and was on the fundraising committee at the Cheshire Home at Alne, near Easingwold. Jim was awarded the Paul Harris Fellowship in recognition of his outstanding fundraising work.
Three generations of wood block printers. On the right is the founder of the business, Robert Duncan DeLittle. His son Robert Geoffrey DeLittle is to his left, and he is holding his grandson Robert James ‘Jim’ DeLittle (Source: York Press, date unknown).
Jim DeLittle at the Vine Street factory, the DeLittle company’s home from late 1899 to 1998. (Photo: York Press, date unknown)
DeLittle’s Wood Type Specimens, 1966, The Cary Graphic Arts Collection at the Wallace Center, Rochester Institute of Technology (Cary Library: Flat 105492)