Joel Chandler Harris’s (Printer’s) Devil-ish Origins

Joel Chandler Harris is remembered as a bestselling author in the 19th-century with his popular Uncle Remus books. But Harris’s professional beginnings are much less glamorous. He got his first job when he was fourteen years old, working for a local Eatonton newspaper called The Countryman as a printer’s devil.

Any chance you found yourself thinking, “Wait… a what? What the heck is a printer’s devil?” 

I know I certainly did the first time I heard the term.

The official definition of a “printer’s devil” is: “a person, typically a young boy, serving at or below the level of apprentice in a printing establishment.” 

Turner Plantation Homestead

Joel Chandler Harris was an apprentice for Joseph Addison Turner. In 1862, Turner decided to produce a newspaper from his home at Turnwold Plantation. (In fact, in a-more-than-semi-autobiographical book Harris wrote called, On the Plantation, he explains that the printing office for The Countryman was established “in an outhouse.”) A young Harris was fortunate enough to come across Turner’s advertisement seeking help for his paper:

“WANTED – An active, intelligent white boy, fourteen or fifteen years of age, is wanted at this office to learn the printing business.” – March 4, 1862, The Countryman

A 19th-century type tray.

As was the typical arrangement for the time, Harris worked for Turner in exchange for clothing and boarding at the Turnwold Plantation for the four plus years he apprenticed there. As a printer’s devil, Harris was responsible for setting and inking the type for the paper on the hand-press, individually placing the letters so they were spaced appropriately for printing. A far more tedious and intense process than typing this blog post on my computer right now and substantially harder than pressing Ctrl + P to have a paper copy for distribution. But Harris quickly learned the trade and eventually even started contributing content to the paper.

However, he wouldn’t be the prankster we love if he didn’t do it somewhat sneakily. He said later in life that:

“While setting type for the ‘Countryman’ I contributed surreptitiously to the columns of that paper, setting my articles from the ‘case’ instead of committing them to paper, thus leaving no evidence of authorship. I supposed that this was a huge joke; but as Mr. Turner read the proof of every line that went into his paper, it is probable that he understood the situation and abetted it.”

Now if you’re like me, you probably thought: “OK, but why the heck was the position called ‘printer’s devil’?”

It appears there’s no real consensus about the origin of the term. Most commonly, it is believed that it refers to the fact that the apprentices would often end up covered in ink while they worked – and when the printing press was first invented, the color black was associated with the devil. 

However, this is by far my least favorite of the theories I encountered in my research.

A popular theory I found is that the term has its origins in printing’s early association with magic. When they first hit the market, the consistency of printed materials in comparison to handwritten ones was seen as so extraordinary, it had to be witchcraft or black magic. Thus, the young boys working on the printing press were little devils, practicing the dark arts.

Titivillus haunting a 13th-century Scribe.

Alternatively, another theory posits that a devil haunted every printing press, ready to invert letters, misspell words, or drop a line or paragraph completely whenever the printer’s back was turned. The devil even has a name: Titivillus. Titivillus’s origins predate the printing press as the “patron demon of scribes,” responsible for errors in their handwritten transcriptions. Basically, he was a 13th-century version of autocorrect in a text message. A less flattering expansion of this theory is that the apprentice’s were called “the printer’s devil” because they were the source of the mistakes.

In some theories, a specific person is called out as the origin of the term. In one instance, it’s the assistant to William Caxton, England’s first printer and book publisher. In another, it’s Gutenberg’s business partner, John Fust, who sold several copies of the printed Bible to Louis XI and his court, but passed them off as handwritten. When people noticed the letters were identical, Fust was accused of witchcraft and imprisoned. 

I’m not sure which of these is the true source, but in some ways, I prefer all the stories to a real answer. 

Regardless of the term’s origins, “printer’s devil” will forever be an integral part of Joel Chandler Harris’s origins.

Joel Chandler Harris, Jospeh Addison Turner, newspapers, origin stories, printer's devil, The Countryman, Turnwold

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