Think bibliography is too stuffy? There are plenty of scandalous tales in the history of printing. One of the most infamous is the story of the Uncle Silas plate in the first edition of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.
Twain expected Huck to be a major hit, and the huge number of advance orders strengthened his opinion. To prepare for demand, the first printing alone contained 30,000 copies. In order to print that many copies so quickly, Twain’s printer had 50 pressmen working on the project, who produced 690,000 sheets in three months.
It is because there were so many pressmen who had access to the printing plates that the perpetrator was never caught, despite a $500 reward.
Like Tom Sawyer, Twain’s previous book about boys, this work contained a great number of illustrations. One of those illustrations is an engraved plate that depicts Huck speaking with Uncle Silas and Mrs. Phelps. Huck’s back is to us. Uncle Silas is standing in front of him, hips jutting forward slightly. Mrs. Phelps stands to the side with an awfully odd look on her face. The caption reads: “What do you reckon ‘t is?”
It was too easy. Someone took the opportunity handed to him by the gods (most likely Loki or Hermes, depending on one’s cultural preference) and went for it.
As with Twain’s other books, salesmen flooded American cities attempting to sell the book through subscription before it was published. In lieu of showing a copy of the book that hadn’t yet been completed, the salesmen were given a prospectus as a tool to show possible buyers what the finished product would look like. The prospectus mimicked the binding of the book (including samples of the more expensive leather options), portions of the text, and examples of the illustrations. It was one of these traveling salesmen who first discovered the problem.
The Uncle Silas plate had been defaced. A couple of minor strokes onto the engraved plate had given Uncle Silas a penis, sticking out obscenely in Huck’s direction. Uncle Silas was exposing himself to the boy. Suddenly Mrs. Phelps’s odd smile and the caption took on a new meaning.
Click here to see the defaced image from the University of Virginia’s copy.
And this plate had been printed in 3000 copies of the prospectus, for salesmen to sell as a children’s book to housewives. In the words of a contemporary newspaper article,
Throughout the country were hundreds of agents displaying the merits of the work and elaborating on the artistic work of the engravings.
Now, you’d think Twain would have loved such rebellious ingenuity. He did not.
You see, Twain had a lot at stake in the smooth printing of his magnum opus. He’d broken with the American Publishing Company over this novel, even though they had printed his previous books. The American Publishing Company argued that they had made Mark Twain household name. Twain argued, on the contrary, that his successes had made the American Publishing Company. Twain demanded a bigger cut of the profits, and negotiations reached an impasse. Twain called their bluff.
He set up his nephew Charles L. Webster as a printer, and simply created a publishing company of his own. This was his new company’s first project.
Luckily, Webster was a competent businessman and acted as soon as the “ribald illustration” (that’s bibliographical euphemism for you) came to light. His quick action in removing the plate (by a cancel in already-bound copies, and by replacing the entire gathering in unbound copies, for you bibliopedants) saved the company an estimated $25,000 in reprint costs.
There are only a few known surviving copies of the defaced plate. The vast majority of copies exist in two states: the “curved fly,” indicating the shape of Silas’s offending area before the joke; and the “straight fly,” indicating the shape after poor Uncle Silas’s peotomy. It’s always a question among rare book devotees whether any other examples survive. Reading the last sentence of that same contemporary newspaper article, the idea is tantalizing:
Several opposition publishers got hold of the cut…and these now adorn their respective offices.
Clearly, the potential to see graffiti as art had early beginnings in America.