Gutenberg Museum in Mainz

In the center of Mainz, not far from the cathedral and the theater, is the Gutenberg Museum, which documents the invention of the printing press by the German goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg in 1448. Gutenberg was a native of Mainz and did most of his major work here. The museum has a working replica of one of his presses.

Movable type

Gutenberg used his knowledge of metallurgy to cast 290 different blocks of letters and symbols, which could be put together in different ways to create pages of text. He also created a new kind of ink based on linseed oil and soot, and adapted a wine press so he could slide paper in and out of it, and squeeze water from the paper after printing each page.

Demonstration of printing as it was done in Gutenberg’s time

Several times daily the museum presents demonstrations of printing as it was done using Gutenberg’s method. After the type has been set, it takes quite a bit of muscle power to press the type down against the paper with a wooden handle that looks like a baseball bat.

A page printed during the demonstration

This is a slow way of printing, by today’s standards, but much faster and cheaper than copying books by hand, as had been done for thousands of years before.

A picture of Gutenberg behind the replica printing press

Gutenberg is usually pictured with a long beard, as in the etching shown here, but no one really knows what he looked like.

Upstairs in a vault in glass cases there are several actual books that Gutenberg printed, including two bibles, along with hand-copied books from the same period.

Further exhibits show the work of other early printers, and the development of paper, and printing presses from later centuries.

An early 20th-century printing press

A thorough renovation and expansion of the Gutenberg Museum is scheduled to begin in the spring of 2024. During the construction time, about a third of the exhibits from the Gutenberg Museum will be on display at another museum in Mainz, the Natural History Museum, which is currently being renovated for this purpose.

Statue of Gutenberg by the cathedral in Mainz

My photos in this post are from 2004. I revised the text in 2023.

See also: Grafisch Museum in Groningen, Netherlands.

7 thoughts on “Gutenberg Museum in Mainz”

  1. Interesting. That’s a museum I’d love to visit. We used to publish a state music magazine before computers and quickly discovered when proofreading that the moveable type presented a problem. We’d ask for a correction on a page and when they reset the type, there would be a different mistake on the same page. Computers took care of that, thankfully.

    Have you been to Montolieu, the village of books near Carcassonne? They have a nice small museum of books and printing. History is fascinating.

  2. Really interesting, and amazing to think how far we’ve come since then with the written and printed word.

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