A printer's devil was an apprentice in a printing establishment who performed a number of tasks, such as mixing tubs of ink and fetching type. Notable writers including Ambrose Bierce, Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain served as printer's devils in their youth.
The origin of printer's devil is not definitively known. Various competing theories of the phrase's origin follow.
Printer's devil has been ascribed to parts of printer's apprentices' skin inevitably being stained black by the ink used in printing. As black was associated with the "black arts", the apprentice came to be called a devil.
Another origin is linked to the fanciful belief among printers that a special devil (see the typographical personification Titivillus) haunted every print shop, performing mischief such as inverting type, misspelling words and removing entire lines of completed type. The apprentice became a substitute source of blame and came to be called a printer's devil by association.
A third source involves a business partner of Johann Gutenberg, Johann Fust, who sold several of Gutenberg's bibles to King Louis XI of France and his court officials, representing the bibles as hand-copied manuscripts. When it was discovered that individual letters were identical in appearance, Fust was accused of witchcraft – the red ink text was said to have been written in blood, and Fust was imprisoned. Though Fust was later freed after the bibles' origins were revealed, many still believed he was in league with Satan, thus the phrase.
Another possible origin is ascribed to Aldus Manutius, a well-known Venetian printer of the Renaissance and founder of the Aldine Press, who was denounced by detractors for practicing the black arts (early printing was long associated with devilry). The assistant to Manutius was a young boy of African descent who was accused of being the embodiment of Satan and dubbed the printer's devil.
English tradition links the origin of printer's devil to the assistant of the first English printer and book publisher, William Caxton. Caxton's assistant was named "Deville", which evolved to "devil" over time, as that name was used to describe other printers' apprentices.
A number of notable men served as printer's devils in their youth, including Ambrose Bierce, William Dean Howells, James Printer, Benjamin Franklin, Raymond C. Hoiles, Samuel Fuller, Thomas Jefferson, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Joel Chandler Harris, Warren Harding, Lawrence Tibbett, John Kellogg, Lyndon Johnson, Hoodoo Brown, James Hogg, Geoff Lloyd, Joseph Lyons, Albert Parsons, Meade Huggins and Lázaro Cárdenas.
- writersservices.com (2002). Printer's Devil. Retrieved December 25, 2005.
- Frank Granger (1997). The Printer's Devil. Retrieved December 25, 2005.
- Rev. E. Cobham Brewer, LL.D. (year unlisted). Character Sketches of Romance, Fiction and the Drama. Retrieved December 25, 2005.
- Pubs and Breweries of the Midlands: Past and Present (year unlisted) The Printer's Devil. Retrieved December 25, 2005.