The American Printing House for the Blind, Inc. (APH) was founded in 1858, but its history begins in 1854 with a blind man’s campaign to raise money to emboss Milton’s Paradise Lost in raised letters. That man was Morrison Heady, a resident of Kentucky.
Two years later, Dempsey B. Sherrod, a blind man from Mississippi, traveled across the state to raise money to print books in raised letters. By the next year, 1857, he had convinced the State of Mississippi to charter a national “Publishing House to Print Books in Raised Letters, for the Benefit of the Blind.”
The company was to be located in Louisville, Kentucky. The General Assembly of Kentucky passed An Act To Establish the American Printing House for the Blind (1858).
In 1860, a group of private citizens in Mississippi and Kentucky each contributed $1,000 to raise the initial operating funds for the APH. APH Superintendent Bryce M. Patten ordered a press and set up operations in the basement of the Kentucky Institution for the Education of the Blind.
However, the outbreak of the American Civil War disrupted the embossing of books. In 1865, the Commonwealth of Kentucky allocated money to support the APH, and donations began to come in from individuals in Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio.
Notice, dear reader, that none of these states joined the Confederacy. Neither the governments in the states that lost the war, nor residents thereof, would have been in a position to appropriate or donate money to even the worthiest causes. In 1866, the APH embossed Fables and Tales for Children in Boston Line Letter.
Ten years later, the American Association of Instructors of the Blind (AAIB) elected a committee to draft a bill for Congress to pass that would provide federal funding for blind students. On March 3, 1879, Congress passed an Act to Promote the Education of the Blind, which authorized the federal government’s annual appropriations for the APH to produce books for the blind in schools at no cost to the blind. This federal funding continues today through the Federal Quota Program.
In 1883, because federal funding for embossed books increased demand for them, the APH became cramped in its basements quarters in the Kentucky Institution for the Education for the Blind and the Commonwealth of Kentucky paid to build a separate building for the APH next door. Between 1894 and 1914, the size of the APH catalog of embossed books grew from 15 pages to 100 pages.
In 1922, the APH built an addition to double the capacity of the press room and bindery. Over time, embossing books changed for the APH as New York Point and raised letters gave way to braille.
Later, the APH adopted interpoint braille, which is embossed on both sides of a page. This reduced the bulk of a braille volume by one-third, which was important for librarians for whom shelf-space is always a consideration, as Adelia M. Hoyt, a Library of Congress staff member, noted in “Work with Blind Round Table,” an article she wrote in Bulletin of the American Library Association, Volume 23, No. 8, Papers and Proceedings: Fifty-First Annual Conference (August1929), p. 367.
Improved stereograph machines and faster presses led to lower costs for the production of embossed books. The educational aides of the era were very basic, braille slates, maps, writing guides, etc.
In 1928, the APH introduced Readers Digest in braille. Three years later, the APH built a machine shop and introduced arithmetic slates and the Beetz Notation Graph for music.
J. Robert Atkinson (1887-1964), founder of The Universal Braille Press, which evolved into the Braille Institute of America, lobbied Congress to pass a law to expand federal funding for literature for blind adults. Conresswoman Ruth Baker Pratt (1877-1965) and Senator Reed Owen Smoot (1862-1941) sponsored the Pratt-Smoot Act (1931), signed into law by President Herbert Hoover (1874-1964).
The law authorized an annual appropriation of $100,000 to be administered by the Library of Congress (LOC) for the production of embossed books for adults. This was the origin of the LOC’s Books for the Blind program.
The law was amended in 1933 to cover Talking Books as well as embossed books. Already taking in money for the production of textbooks under the Act to Promote the Education of the Blind, the APH began to receive money from the Library of Congress for the production of other braille books and audio-books for adults.
With the adoption of Standard English Braille in 1932, the era of embossing books in multiple tactile systems ended in the U.S. Two years later, the APH gained an endowment fund to subsidize magazine subscriptions and similar program not covered by the Federal Quota under an Act to Promote the Education of the Blind.
In 1936, the APH opened a recording studio. Later that year, Hugh Sutton narrated APH’s first Talking Book, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.
By the summer of 1938, the APH had recorded thirty-two books. In 1939, the APH recorded Reader’s Digest for the first time, on phonographic records (or gramophone records).
During World War II, the APH had to increase its workweek to forty-four hours to meet demand. Most of the raw materials the APH used to make products were on the U.S. Government’s list of essential war materials. The War Materials Board prohibited or rationed the sale of paper, natural rubber (as opposed to synthetic rubber), tires, gasoline, heat oil, metals, and civilian automobiles.
In 1946, an Act to Promote the Education of the Blind was amended to allow the APH to produce and distribute large-print books for the seeing-impaired as well as braille books for the blind. The APH created a large-print textbook department.
Two years later, the APH built an addition in back of its facility to expand production to meet demand for the production of textbooks for the blind under the Act to Promote the Education of the Blind and books for blind adults under the Pratt-Smoot Act. In the next decade, IBM partnered with the APH to make a computer program to translate English text into braille. By 1952, the APH produce fifty-two braille magazines.
Also in 1952, the APH created its Department of Educational Research, now called Research & Development. The APH greatly expanded the production of educational aides thanks to the efforts of the first two departmental directors, Samuel Ashcroft and Carson Nolan.
In 1959, the APH began recording Newsweek. This decade also saw the APH develop the forerunner of the Louis Database in the Central Catalog, which allowed readers to find thousands of textbooks translated into braille.