Housed in the Library of Congress is 1 of only 3 perfect, vellum copies of the Gutenberg Bible, the first ever printed book.
Johannes Gutenberg is credited with the invention of the movable type printing press some time around the year 1440. A Catholic man, it was fitting the first book he printed using his invention was the Word of God, his seminal work entitled the Gutenberg Bible.
Shortly after inventing the printing press, Gutenberg began preparing to print an edition of the Latin Vulgate around the year 1450. Gutenberg and his apprentice Peter Schöffer worked for 4 years on printing the “42-line Bible.” By the year 1454-1455, they had finished copies: the first movable-type printed book ever was the Bible.
While the exact number is not known, its thought that Gutenberg printed between 158 and 180 copies of the Bible: three quarters were printed on paper, and the remaining quarter printed on vellum.
Today, 49 copies of the Gutenberg Bible remain, with only 21 being complete works. Of the complete works, 3 were printed on prepared animal skin – vellum – one of which is housed in the Library of Congress.
For centuries that copy was in possession of the Benedictines at Saint Paul’s Abbey in eastern Carinthia, Austria. It bears the mark of each previous owner, the most famous of which was Abbott of Saint Blasius’ Monastery in the Black Forest of Germany.
In 1925 Doctor Otto Vollbehr, German chemist, inventor, and historian purchased the copy from the monks. A year later, he traveled to the United States and proposed that if a benefactor bought half of his collection of 15th century texts containing 3,114 books, he would donate to them the other half.
Ross Alexander Collins, a Congressman from Mississippi, caught wind of Vollbehr’s proposal and made an impassioned speech on the House floor. $1.5 million ($23 million today) was set aside from the budget to buy the copy of the Gutenberg Bible and the rest of the collection. In June 1930, President Hoover signed it into law bringing the copy into the Great Hall of the Library of Congress.
The Gutenberg Bible is composed of 1,282 pages. Each page measures 17 x 12 inches. The type is set in two columns, forty-two lines each. Gutenberg’s type resembles a commonly used script known as “Textura” or “Black Letter Gothic.” The Bible is colored with red and blue inks, which were added by the purchaser after the printing was complete. Red strokes were used throughout to indicate the beginning of a verse. The size of the margins is based upon proportions used by scribes in creating manuscript books. Only one page of type was set up at a time and then printed. Gutenberg made 300 different pieces of type. Of the 300 pieces he made, some were ligatures (letters linked to each other) and there were approximately 125 abbreviation sorts (symbols for abbreviations common to the fifteenth-century scribe). After the book was printed, the purchaser was responsible for binding and all decoration. Space was left in the text for decorated initials.
You can learn more about the copy at the Library of Congress’ interactive online presentation here.