6. The Gutenburg Bible

Gutenberg Bible in the Polonsky Exhibition
Gutenberg Bible. Photo by Robert Kato.

As the first sustainable book printed in Europe using mass-produced moveable metal type, the Gutenberg Bible marked a turning point in the world of print and communication. First printed in 1455 by goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg in Mainz in what is now present-day Germany, the Bible’s usage of moveable metal, oil-based printing, and creation in a mechanical printing press was revolutionary. After its release, a wave in the mass production of identical texts would spread across the Western world. This in turn helped to spark the codification of grammar and syntax in language as more individuals became literate. Moreover, the Gutenberg Bible is celebrated for its aesthetic qualities, featuring beautifully rubricated initial letters in the typical style of Gothic German scribes. 

Today, forty-nine copies of the Gutenberg Bible survive. The version of the Bible on display was acquired in 1847 by collector and New York Public Library founder James Lenox and was the first iteration brought to the Americas. As legend has it, Lenox’s agent instructed Custom House workers to remove their hats in respect upon seeing the Bible.